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On an early, April day, sitting in the den, I watched the sun dancing with the dust motes, brushing the desk, the door and the wall as it made its way to sunset. I was hunkered down amid the shelves that groan under the weight of books that comfort, inspire, frighten, motivate and entertain me, recalling the months Tom took designing then making them for my biblio-obsession.

As I sat, nestled in the well-worn easy chair – does anyone else use that term anymore? – I watched the journey of the sunlight until it landed on the small, shelved mirror on the wall. The mirror has a small drawer-like shelf that seemed to be crafted just for me to put things, which I have done over the course time.

One of the items slipped into mirror’s shelf is the remains of a chrysalis, found a few years ago when I happened upon a cocoon hidden in the long grasses of our little prairie. After monitoring the little miracle (my neighbors must think me a tad “off”) I missed the emergence. I took the long stem and remains indoors and settled it into the small shelf drawer . You can find that story here.

So it was that the sun kissed the remnants of what was and what would be.  I sighed, grateful for the reminder that out of uncertainty and chaos we can find hope.

There will be no palms this Sunday. No gatherings in churches, temples and other houses of worship. Whether Christian, Jewish, Hindu – our collective tents have their doors shuttered for the time being. They will open again, someday in the future. Until then, we must take care to not shutter our hearts.  It may be a long wait, but, it will happen. Until then, let us open up our hearts to love, to hope, to peace.

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The mixer poised, ready and willing, sat on the counter’s edge. Sifters and spoons, cake flour and powdered sugar – part and parcel to a plan to make kourambethes early the following Christmas Eve morn.

Keziah and I had been chatting away, as we often do, wondering what we would make for supper and what delectable treats we would bake next. I mentioned that I wanted to bake Greek powdered sugar cookies (kourambethes) and that I could use her help. Well . . . that quickly became an action plan to bake them early the next morning, with Kezzie suggesting that we bring some to share at church on Christmas Eve.

Keziah helped me make peppermint kiss cookies for a ladies event I would be attending when our Up North family visited at Thanksgiving. I was impressed over how precise and efficient she had become,  forming dough into cookies, molding them “just so”. in a way remarkably resembling that of my Yia Yia, so many years ago.

So it was that Kezzie sifted flour ( 4 or 5 times, Yia YIa,  really? ). The mixer whirred and blended the butter and egg yolks (Yia Yia, you can’t use just the yolks!). A taste of pinched off dough determined that we needed more sugar (Yia Yia, you can’t eat cookie dough!).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I explained to Keziah that my Yia Yia could not read or write (oh, Yia Yia, everyone can do that!) which was why this recipe did not have precise measurements. I told her that this recipe was written down for me by my mother, who I called Ma (like Little House on the Prairie?) but Auntie Jenny and Kezzie’s Mommy called Yia Yia (could she read and write?). I replied that yes, she could, but that she did not finish 8th grade, nor did she read or write or speak Greek.

My sweet granddaughter, perched upon a stool, pinched and rolled with an uncanny ease for one so young. She lined the dough on cookie sheets as we talked and baked and tasted our results. Keziah did the work her Yia Yia couldn’t quite handle this year. We talked, she asked questions and we puzzled out family history. She reminded me to check the cookies in the oven and anticipated “dusting” the cookies with powdered sugar when it was time.

When we were done, 100 cookies were made, tins were filled, and Ezra helped us taste test – just to make sure they were good.

This recipe for kourambethes came to me like taking the long way home.

It begins for me with a young woman, Penelope, for whom I am named. She brought this recipe and others in her mind as she traveled down a mountain, more than a century ago, a donkey employed to carry their possessions. She came down the mountain and boarded one ship, then another and sailed across the ocean to New York, then traveled on to Massachusetts and finally Chicago. Her daughter-in-law, my Ma, wrote down what she saw and in time gave it to me. The measurements in saucers-full and baking until done.

This year, 2020, five generations strong, I will convert my cursive writing to print and provide more accurate measurements*, confident in the knowledge that a new generation is now becoming the keeper of family recipes, especially those that have traveled so very far.

  • My one true test of knowing when the dough is sweet enough to bake is in tasting the dough. Yia Yia would always pinch off a little piece of dough for my sister and a piece for me before she would start forming cookies to bake. This pinch is how I know they are sweet enough. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

 

 

 

 

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Mr. Crow looks rather dashing, perched atop our Christmas tree, as he governs the woodland creatures below. He wears a red bowtie that he found on his long-ago travels. It ribbons its way through branches where nature inspired ornaments congregate until Epiphany. A raccoon, near wind fallen birds’ nests, sits gnawing upon a branch.  The nests were discovered after heavy winds rumbled through our little acreage as time has gone by. A dove flutters nearby, keeping the peace in this little December kingdom, and a bluebird rests in his favorite spot.

Our nature-inspired Christmas tree faces the front gardens, the road and beyond. It is in the room where we sit to hopefully spot the roaming herd of deer or to watch wintering birds find seeds or squirrels who scamper about looking for walnuts still scattered from Fall. This is where we sometimes see horses trotting past before disappearing into the woods . It is where we read, reflect, chat and dream. This room was christened “the Christmas room” by our granddaughter, Kezzie, when she was very young. It has been forevermore called just that.

Our woodland tree “just happened” our first Christmas here on the Cutoff. A real tree stood twelve feet tall in the family room. It held many family ornaments, lent fragrance and nostalgia to our home. We also had room for a second, artificial tree, which  came about that first winter here as I took out my mother’s collection of birds. The birds fondly reminded me of Ma, who was the person who first brought the tradition of Christmas trees into the big Greek family she married into. I have some of the ornaments that adorned that tree of the 1940’s and I treasure them, but, I digress.

As Ma’s birds took to their places on the woodland tree,  so did other ornaments that reflected on nature. As time went on, other birds appeared, as did other animals. I have several penguins, sheep, deer and  along with a few woodland creatures that had belonged to Tom’s sister, Maura. One-by one, year-by-year, other creatures of nature were hung on our woodland tree – and then I found the crow!

I no longer remember where he appeared, but, I do remember feeling compelled to bring him home. He reminded me of storybook about a crow, a ribbon, and a Christmas surprise.

(cover of Merry Christmas, Merry Crow by Kathi Appelt, illustrated by Jon Goodell)

Mr. Crow also reminded me of the illustrations, craftwork and lifestyle of Tasha Tudor.

(From Tasha Tudor’s Heirloom Crafts)

I have adored Tasha Tudor’s work for so many years, own many of her books, books she illustrated, prints, etc. and have written about her on the pages of Life on the Cutoff. Her book, “Edgar Allan Crow”, immediately came to mind when Mr. Crow found me, as did photos of her ravens and crows in some of her Christmas illustrations and photos of her craftsmanship in a series of lifestyle books about her some years ago.

There are legends of crows, including the one who overhead animals proclaim the birth of baby Jesus. The crow, it is said, flew across the land spreading the news to other birds. There are other fanciful tales of birds adorning holiday trees, along with poetry, song and on and on. Perhaps you know few.

There are also my own memories of birds and Christmas, starting with the Christmas Yia Yia, my paternal grandmother, was given a parakeet on Christmas. Christos was quite the talker, learned all sorts of phrases, many in Greek, along with some bawdy songs. These are stories for other days and part of family lore. There was also Frannie, my lovebird, a birthday gift. She loved to be out of her cage and was really everyone’s bird. She joined us for supper, perched on Tom’s shoulder and watched the 10 o’clock news, and followed our daughters around the house. Frannie was out other cage on her first Christmas with us, chirping and fluttering and being a bird. Suddenly, she disappeared! We called to her, checked the other rooms, and kept an eye out for her as we opened presents, wondering where she was. As wonderings often reveal, I saw something move, ever-so-slightly, out of the corner of my eye. Aha! There she was, perched like an ornament, watching us all, on a branch of the Christmas tree!

So, it is, that a crow crowns our Christmas tree – and will forever more.

 

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We readied ourselves for the day, ate our breakfast in the hotel, gathered our stuffed backpacks, and walked the short distance to the National Mall, It was a brilliant day, perfect for celebrating America’s Independence. The girls were old enough to have an understanding of the why we celebrate the 4th of July, and young enough to maneuver around a city neither Tom nor I had been to.

Floats and citizens in costumes were finding their spots in the queue that would become a parade. We chatted a bit with a few participants, especially a woman with miniature horses. It was friendly and fun and not unlike the parade participants that would be gathering back home.

We the heard  “hear ye, hear ye, hear ye” summoning all, from the National Archives . There the Declaration of Independence was read by a scribe in period costume. I remember this moment clearly, standing in my 20th century clothes (it was still the 20th century) and imagining this treasonous document being read across the land more than 200 years past. I reflected on what this might have felt like, how anxious, determined, frightened citizens must have felt.

We hopped on a D. C trolly which took us hither and yon, the rest of the day.

We covered a lot of ground.

Our first stop was Arlington National Cemetery. The rows upon rows of headstones was sobering, the history of Arlington insightful. I choked back sobs at the eternal flame, remembering it first being lit as young girl when President Kennedy was assassinated, amazed at the well of emotions the small flame evoked. We viewed the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and other points of interest amid a respectful grouping of people, from all walks of life, on these hallowed grounds.

Our day took us to the Lincoln Memorial, where we were free to view, to read the inscription, to share the history of this president and his presidency with our young daughters. We stood in amazement at the throng of people around the Reflecting Pond – all ages and all walks of life. We visited the Viet Nam Memorial, where I was helped in locating the name of a boy I went to school with, and we listened to a man, dressed in a safari outfit, looking for signatures to get his name on the ballot for United States President. I remember at first thinking he was a Park Ranger – how easily we can be fooled. There were, however, National Park Rangers all around us, for the National Mall is a National Park.

Tom and Jennifer and Katy and I went into the American History Museum and then the National Archives, where we witnessed another changing of the guard at the documents. (I think it was the Declaration of Independence. My memory is a bit foggy as one of our girls managed to walk in front of the armed guards in the ceremony. A moment we all remember.)

The Washington Memorial was closed for repairs that summer, but, we still stood in awe as we gazed upward. The Mall began to fill as dusk approached. We were ill-prepared, but, none-the-less decided to stay for the music and the fireworks on the Mall. This was long before the concerts that are now performed. There was a band and some vendors on the perimeter of the grand lawn. We purchased what were the absolutely WORST hot dogs I have ever had, but, they are a part of our 4th of July DC story, as is the portrait ingrained in my mind of the four of us, on the 4th, sitting on our jackets on the lawn as the grass filled with spectators. The music played on and the stars sparkled in the sky, even as helicopters scanned the area, protecting space above.

As night fell, the crowd grew, anticipation mounted – and finally fireworks filled the sky. I remain grateful that my family and I could observe this American holiday in our National Park – the National Mall.

Photos

Right –  Assembly Room, Independence Hall, Philadelphia. This is the room where the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution were debated and signed. My photo from a trip to Philadelphia.

Left – Ben Franklin

 

 

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So it is that a new year has arrived, with the midnight madness of fireworks, toasts and resolutions, the anticipation or anxiety toward the year ahead. I’m not much of a New Year’s Eve person. I never do resolutions, preferring not to set myself up for disappointment, instead feeling that each new day, with the first one of the year or the last one of any week, holds opportunities, much to be grateful for, sadness to hold in my heart and for joy to ripen like summer fruit into gratitude . . . on and on as each day goes.

Our Christmas was on the quiet side, with Christmas Eve church services and a Christmas Day meal at our daughter and son-in-law’s house with cherished family. Burrata and pesto slathered on crusty bread from Heather and Andrew and an amazing frittata from Suzanne whetted our appetites and was a recipe/tradition of her grandfather’s. Jennifer, always daring in her menus, served us the most succulent of meals: duck comfit with a pickled raisin sauce, lentils, potatoes and smashed Brussels sprouts. It took her days to prepare it – and mere minutes for us to consume.

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Vase appeared, as did holiday cookies, pastries and Jason’s crullers – another family recipe.

 

Gatherings with others and quiet time, as well as moments of pure delight and those of poignant memories. Elegant meals as well as simple suppers, my mountains of Christmas books and the cheerful cards that came through the mail – it was a meaningful and lovely Christmastide.

My Antler Man and I dined in for New Year’s Eve – we usually do. A rare treat of steak and potatoes to celebrate year’s end, and some Belgium chocolate gelato for a wee desert. I baked and baked and baked some more this year. I don’t know where the flurry of flour activity arose from, but, it did and I will confess that it is rather nice to end the year, any year, on a “sweet” note. My pièce de résistance was a most delectable pork tenderloin on New Year’s Day. Gently stuffed with spinach and Swiss cheese, I topped it with cinnamon apples, baked in a very hot oven and ate with wild abandon. (Well, not exactly wild abandon, but, we did eat well 🙂 ).

So it is that a new year has arrived – and with it gratitude for each and every one of you that visits here on the Cutoff. I appreciate all of you and am humbled that you take the time to read my ramblings.

Thank you, one and all, and best wishes for a healthy, happy New Year!

Penny

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The morning was bright and clear with dashes of sunshine stroking my life. Decorations were scattered about our rambling abode; angels rested on high, books stacked within reach, and there were even a few batches of cookies stored in decorative tins. A rare December day with no meetings on the calendar, a tank full of gas and a list of wonders that I wanted to see, so, off I went with a purpose in mind.

My first stop was to see an exhibit about one of my favorite movies, It’s a Wonderful Life,  at the Elmhurst History Museum. Alas and alack, I arrived to discover it would not open for several more hours, so . . . I promptly reversed my plans and headed, first, to the Wilder Park Conservatory. The Conservatory is an oasis of growth and warmth, history and soulful nourishment nestled into an award-winning park in the western suburbs.

Opening the door, a couple I have known were exiting, two charming grandsons toddling out with them. These two youngsters informed me that there were “fishes” and “elves” inside.

Well, what to my wondering eyes should appear, but, elves here and there and everywhere in the conservatory, along with this poinsettia tree and a cheerful display of the plants all around.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In need of a “cuppa” of something warm and a bit of bite to eat, I headed to the north end of town and Brewpoint Coffee and Roastery where I had a tasty blueberry scone and a hot mocha (called Sacagawea).

As luck would have it, on a day filled with good luck, a perfect parking spot awaited me smack dab in the center of town. Like many suburbs around Chicago, parking is at a premium, so I quickly signaled my intent to park, claiming my curbside cradle. My first stop was The Pink Elephant, a well stocked charity shop. I chatted for quite sometime with a woman I did not know as we good-naturedly tried to talk each other into buying something we did not need. Do you ever do that? As a result, this caroler sang her way into my arms and followed me home.

I stopped at a new store, Bread and Butter, where I had purchased a darling pair of earrings a few weeks earlier. It is such a cute shop and the owner, a enterprising young woman, is as delightful as her products. I left with these cute stocking caps meant for bottles that Rudolf absconded with to keep his antlers warm.

My final stop, which was my first on what became a delightful circuitous route, was a tour of the exhibit at the Elmhurst History MuseumIt’s a Wonderful Life. Posters and “stills” from the movie lined the museum’s wall with informative narratives describing scenes, props, biographical information and other tidbits of knowledge about a beloved movie.

Included in this exhibition are photos and information about Elmhurst’s own Christmas traditions and photos of the city around the time depicted in It’s a Wonderful Life.

I did not take many photos, in part to maintain the integrity of the exhibition, and in part to lure you into the museum if you live in the area or are visiting. It is truly worth the visit and is within a short walking distance of not only the conservatory, but, of the renowned Elmhurst Art Museum.

Here are two characters from the movie, the original Bert and Ernie, and another character you might recall, Toots, with her earrings dangling and her infamous red coat.

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As often happens, holidays bring the loss of a loved one to the forefront. It was particularly so for me this year with Greek Orthodox Easter. It isn’t that Dottie and I celebrated together every year. We didn’t. It was missing the unique, shared experiences that siblings hold. I miss her.

Memories are precious.

This is a re-blogging of a post from six years ago.

 

Harry, Sam and Us (from April 16, 2012)

After greeting each other on Sunday with Christos Anesti, followed by Alethos Anesti, Dottie and I quickly rolled into a phone conversation ranging from Greek Easter bread, which I had just put into the oven, Easter eggs dyed red in the Greek tradition, favorite pastries and how I was making pastichio. One comment lead to another and soon we were recalling the long ago morning we first learned the ancient hymn sung by Orthodox Christians in the early morning of Easter and for the next forty days.

As often occurs with siblings, we each recalled different aspects and had different points of view; how old we were, what room of the house we were in, what time of day.

Dottie and I had been attending Greek school, learning to read and write the language. We had also been attending Sunday School and knew the story of Holy Week and Easter, but we had never attended the Easter Sunday Agape service.

That Easter morning, my mother and grandmother were busy preparing dinner; lamb and potatoes were roasting, the bread was sitting, a red egg in the center, waiting to be sliced, and pastries were hidden from eager young mouths. My father called to us and said he was going to teach us a song. Our cousin Teddy joined us.

We sat upon my parents’ bed as Daddy explained the sacred hymn sung only at Easter. He was going to teach us and then we were going to church for the Agape service. We would hold candles and sing the chant; Christos Anesti. Christ is Risen. He said the words in Greek and we repeated them and then he sang them. We followed suit until we mastered it, which we quickly did., except for the very last line.

Dottie asked me, her voice rising, “do you remember Harry, Sam and Us”?

I did, I exclaimed! One of us, or was it all us?  We couldn’t remember who couldn’t quite master the phrase, just my dad trying to help us through it and finally saying “Haa-ree Sa-a-a-menos. Say it like  Harry, Sam and Us”.

Harry, Sam and Us!

We laughed as we remembered my father’s way of teaching us and we reflected on how lucky we were to have had a father who spent so much time with us and our cousins as well. We remembered that service, our first time in participating in it, so rich and beautiful, the Gospel being read in four languages, the candles and sense of community that comes of faith. We talked, as we often do, of how lucky we were to have the parents we did and the childhood we lived.

We celebrate two Easters here on the Cutoff. Somewhere along the years they have taken on the names of Regular Easter and Greekster. Sunday was Greekster. Our table was laden with traditional food, our talk was lively, and I smiled to myself as I recalled the memories of a long ago Easter morning.

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If-truth-be-told, we are often out-and-about in separate cars, yet, somehow, we usually manage to find each other by the time we reach the end of the road.

So it was on Friday that we arrived in separate cars. Tom needed to be at church earlier than I did, to help set up for the Good Friday service. He also brought the cross, which he meticulously crafted for our newly established satellite church location.. It was a labor of love and an act of humility from the wonderful carpenter Tom is.

I had a busy day doing household chores, running errands, checking table coverings, picking up ingredients for Sunday’s Easter dinner. I would arrive a bit later than Tom did, serve as a greeter, then, side-by-side, the two of us would worship together. It was a moving and meaningful service, both contemplative and experimental, solemn yet hopeful.

The evening air was rather pleasant as pulled out on to the road. A wispy veil of clouds floated above, hinting, then giving way to a moon that pretty full.

 

Kezzie’s Moon!

It is a sweet story, told here on the Cutoff a time or two, especially her first, full moon, which you can read about here.

Eight years have passed since that special night. While on our long ride home, the day after our granddaughter was born. Tom and I (in the same car 🙂 ) stopped at a tollway Oasis to stretch our legs. As we got out of the car, there, just coming up on the horizon, was the moon. It was big and bright and brilliant and I declared “it’s Kezzie’s  moon!”- and so it was and is and will be forevermore.

It warmed my heart when I later learned that Kezzie, way up north where she lives, was also watching the moon rising, and that she proclaimed that it was her moon, Kezzie’s moon, which gave me pause and a moment to reflect on how wondrous it is that we can also manage to find each other by the light of the late March moon.

 

 

 

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The traveling vase has been resurrected!

The vase been sitting on the chifforobe since Christmas, patiently gathering dust. It was last filled with flowers when my daughter, Jennifer, made a festive Christmas floral arrangement.

Last week, my friend Bev shared photos of some clever Easter arrangements using –

wait for it –

jelly Beans and Peeps!

I was up for the challenge.

I already had a bag of jelly beans sitting on a kitchen shelf and Marshmallow Peeps are readily available this time of year. My friend Marilyn suggested placing a jelly jar inside the vase; the jar to hold the flowers and to act as a barrier between the Peeps and Jelly Beans.  A jelly jar to keep Peeps in line and hold jelly beans in place!

I ended up putting a shot glass inside the jelly jar to hold some daffodils. Daffodils are toxic to other flowers in an arrangement, but, I knew I wanted to pick some from the garden to add to the spray roses and Hypericum berries I had purchased. Glass inside of glass allowed to use the flowers I chose.

Daffodils are putting on a sustained performance in our garden, now that Spring has finally arrived.

So it is that the traveling vase has once again traded hands, hopping down the bunny trail to Jennifer’s house. Who knows when it will return or what will hold, but, I know it will be special. Very special, indeed.

The story of the Sisterhood of the Traveling Vase begins here.

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. . . and other sweet treasures.

I couldn’t find the recipe. It wasn’t in my recipe files, nor was it in a small notebook with Hollie Hobbie on the cover, a gift from a student a long time ago. Inside it are old, faded favorites with tell-tale splatters.

No luck!

The recipe for Fruit Pizza was given to me by my friend, Linda, who first brought this delectable delight to my family many moons ago. Jennifer liked it so much that I asked for the recipe. Maybe it was in the Field School Cookbook. Linda’s children attended the same elementary school as Jennifer and Katy, so I thought it might be in there.

No luck!

I love these recipe books that come from PTA’s, women’s auxiliaries, civic organizations, etc. I call them church lady cookbooks, and I keep them, even if there is only one recipe in them that I use. These are the best of recipe books, for no woman puts in her worst recipe, does she (or he)?

At any rate, I could not find the recipe for Fruit Pizza, even in the school cookbook, but, I did come upon my friend Donna’s recipe for Lemon Sherbet! Donna served us this refreshing and sweet delight as desert for our book group’s annual Christmas Book Discussion in early December.  The tartly sweet frozen sherbet, along with a tray of Christmas cookies, was a perfect complement to her dinner. Then and there, I decided to make sherbet for our Christmas Eve dinner. This young lass helped me. The Lemon Sherbet accompanied not only our Christmas Eve deserts, but, our Christmas Day festivities as well.

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Ezra and Kezzie (and Papa) also frosted Ethel Cookies, an old family favorite. Our kitchen became a confectionary lab for young hands as we slid on a floor covered with powdered sugar and sprinkles.

Both children awakened before their Mommy and Daddy on Christmas morning. Kezzie was eager to make Pinch Cake, a Christmas morning tradition ever since our own daughters were young.

pinch-cake

teakezzie

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Unable to find the recipe for Fruit Pizza, it occurred to me that it was one of our Jennifer’s favorite treats and that I must might have put it in a cookbook I made her – and I had! She brought it over on Christmas. We made it later in the week to bring to Aunty Jenny’s.

It is always a joy for me to bake with our grandchildren. It is rewarding as well; not only for our taste buds, but, the for the ritual of baking for them, showing them how we prepare the food we eat, and, of course, eating the things we make.

The first step in making fruit pizza is to make the cookie crust. It is basically a sugar cookie base patted and rolled onto a pizza pan and baked.

Kezzie was quite the young expert at rolling out the dough and patting it in the pan.

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When the cookie dough was done, we let it cool while we made a cream cheese frosting.

Then, like any good pizza, it needed toppings. Kiwi, strawberries, blueberries, and blackberries were carefully placed around the pizza, with both children topping if off. Ezra LOVES fruit. It seemed the perfect kitchen activity for him (and it was).

Round and round the pizza they went with circles of fruit marching along in a palatable parade that made for a perfect desert at Aunty Jenny’s and Uncle Jason’s Gnocchi Night!

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Do you have a church lady cookbook (or more)? How about a fun fruit desert? Are you doing anything to bring in the New Year, and, lest I forget, Happy New Year to all!

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