Bake Sale Favorites

I’ve truly entered a new phase in mommy-dom in the past week; I got to participate in my first bake sale fundraiser.  These put the fun in fundraising!  I was lucky enough to be able to pick the brains of some more experienced mothers at my son’s school before deciding on a course of action.  This was a good thing, too, as one (okay, ME)  might be tempted to make some over the top cupcakes or some such in order to show off  a little.  It turns out, however that simple is better for a bake sale.  Items need to be individually wrapped, and this is a hard thing to do with a cupcake without making a mess.  Breads, muffins, cookies, brownies and even cake slices on paper plates are much more manageable.  Fortunately there are still plenty of mouth watering choices in those categories!

My favorite bar style dessert is something called a “Nordy Bar,” which is based on a dessert that used to be served in the Nordstrom’s department store coffee bar.   A butterscotch based dough filled with chocolate chips, marshmallows and (optionally) nuts, Nordy Bars are easy to make and highly addictive.  We were introduced to them by a friend who brought them to us after our daughter was born.  At that time I had a good excuse to devour the whole plate by myself; while I would still like to do just that I must now exercise more restraint! 

Nordy Bars

  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter (1 stick)
  • 2 cups butterscotch chips
  • 1/2 cup packed brown sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup white chocolate chips
  • 1/2 cup milk chocolate chips
  • 1/2 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips*
  • 1/2 cup dark chocolate/bittersweet chips
  • 2 cups miniature marshmallows (do NOT be tempted to use the whole bag!)
  • 1 cup chopped walnuts or pecans (optional)

*You can also use 2 cups of semi-sweet chips in place of the four different chocolates 

Directions 
  1. In a medium sized saucepan, melt the butter or margarine over medium heat. Add the butterscotch chips and brown sugar. Stir until melted. Remove pan from heat and stir in the eggs. Add the flour, baking powder and salt. Mix thoroughly and stir in the vanilla.
  2. Set aside to cool to room temperature.  This is the most important step!  It is also the reason you don’t  pre-heat the oven until halfway through the recipe…
  3. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Grease one 13×9 inch baking pan
  4. Once the batter has cooled,  stir in the chocolate chips, marshmallows and chopped nuts (optional.)Spread batter into the prepared pan.
  5. Bake at 350 degrees F (175 degrees C)f or 25 to 28 minutes. The pan may still be jiggly due to the melted marshmallows.  Remove from oven and allow the bars to set overnight before cutting into squares.

Nordy bars freeze well, and are wonderful warmed in a microwave and served with ice cream.  They are also a great gift to give when bringing meals to your friends.  I *do* reccomend splurging for a disposable lidded tin pan at the grocery; if you cut into them, you will be tempted to nibble! 

Another great bake sale item are brownies.  Typical brownies can be fancied up with sprinkles on top, or cut into fun shapes using large cookie cutters.  Or, if you don’t want to be typical, I highly reccomend Betty Crocker’s quick and easy Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Brownies.  Bakerella gives a great tutorial on how to make them.  The chocolate ganache is easy to make and turns this from a mix dessert into something truly special!

Cookies are fun, too.  For bake sales, either large eye-catching cookies or a selection of several smaller cookies packaged together are what seem help customers feel they are getting their money’s worth.   Again, simple is best for this sort of thing.  Although I love fancy decorated cookies, I rarely have time to indulge.  The best alternative I have found is to shortcut the process by coloring my cookie dough and using candy writers, or prepackaged icing to add a few details.  This can create the kind of fun design that children adore in a fraction of the time!   By dividing my dough into two different colors I was able to make seven unique cookies designs.  Black, white and red candy pens were used on the majority, but I also find some grocery store tubes of yellow and pink icing in the pantry that I put to good use.

For this bake sale I used the easiest cookie recipe on the planet: shortbread!  Although shortbread is absurdly easy and only has three ingredients, the quality of those ingredients can affect the taste of your final product.  In the case of a buttery cookie like this one, this means that using a better butter makes a better cookie.  In side by side taste trials at our house, my husband has shown a clear preference for cookies made with Plugra unsalted butter rather than other “top shelf” brands like Kerrygold or Luprak.  Experiment and find your own favorites!

Last but not least, I learned that breakfast goods are also fair game.  At school sponsored events like ours, where the bake sale is the dessert bar, the people in attendance *want* to purchase things.  Since ours in the evening, items for the next morning’s breakfast are just as eye-catching as dessert.  Next year I may make some of Pioneer Woman’s famous Cinnamon Rolls, or perhaps Capitol Clio’s Killer Coffee cake, or even Cook’s Illustrated’s Best Banana Bread.

PS: If you came here by way of the bake sale, I hope you enjoyed your goodies and have fun making these recipes on your own!  Thanks for supporting our school!

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Chocolate Cobbler

Last fall, when I was on a weekend get away with hubby to celebrate ten wonderful years,  we were served Chocolate Cobbler at a fabulous little restaurant in Dahlonega, GA.   In May a similar dessert was featured on Pioneer Woman’s Tasty Kitchen website.  In the time following that post, Chocolate Cobbler (along with a healthy scoop of vanilla ice cream) has become my go-to dessert to serve at dinner parties.

Chocolate Cobbleris a lot like a family sized Molten Lava cake.  It’s got cakey bits, parts that are more like brownie and a rich liquid “chocolate gravy” in the middle.  Sounds delicious, no?  It gets better!  See, the recipe is simple.  The cobbler is made from ingredients that most folks already have on hand.  Better yet, it’s flexible and/or forgiving. The first time I made it my son helped me and we accidentally doubled the cocoa.  Tonight when I made it I forgot the vanilla.  Both times it STILL turned out to be scrumptious.

Hungry for more?  Check out Pioneer Woman’s cooking blog, or the Tasty Kitchen recipe archive for more fun ideas.

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Custom Chocolate Cupcake Toppers

Cupcakes are fun to make and can be as fancy or as simple as you want.  The handheld treat has been a staple of the kid crowd for decades, but has really come into it’s own as a gourmet dessert of late.  Sometimes, in the cupcake world, looks really do matter and it is fun to have your cupcakes match your event, party or theme.  I love to customize mine with homemade chocolate toppers.  It sounds hard and looks complicated, but I’ll let you in on a secret: they’re easy to make!

A popular topping for fancy cupcakes and cakes is fondant.  Fondant looks beautiful, but rarely tastes very good.  I’ve never seen anyone ooh and ah over the taste.  More often fondant is simply peeled off of the cake product in question and set aside.  Likewise gum pastetoppings or toppings made of royal icing are considered edible, but while made of sugar and lovely to look at, they too are usually set aside.  Another popular cake topper substance is marzipan, which is definitely an acquired taste.  All of these make beautiful decorations but aren’t much fun (in my opinion) to eat, although I certainly admire the skills of the sugar artists who work with them.  Chocolate on the other hand is hardly ever set aside!  Chocolate is also readily available and very forgiving to work with.  Why make a cake topper out of something no one wants to eat?  Go for the good stuff, I say.

Any craft store will have bags of chocolate, white chocolate, and colored white chocolate that are commonly referred to as “candy melts.”  Wilton and Merken are the brands I have had the best luck with.  In the same area you can also find candy molds for making party favors, and homemade lollipops, covered cookies and more.  These molds make great cupcake toppers.  You just melt your chocolate candy in the microwave according to the directions and use a squeeze bottle, disposable pasty bag or even a freezer weight plastic baggie to pipe it into the molds.

Sometimes, though, you’ll want or need something specific and that’s where customizing comes in.  For my daughter’s second birthday I wanted to make colored number twos (pictured above.)  It was the first time I had worked with choclate in such a manner and I started easy with something Wilton calls Candy Decorating Pens.  You simply stick them in a cup of hot water and then go.  Next I picked my 2 from a font I liked, sized it (about two and a half inches is perfect,) flipped it over then printed it out.  When working with letters or numbers you have to reverse your image because it’s the flat side of the chocolate (the side touching the parchment) that will become the front of your decoration!  Once you have the image you want, simply place it under some parchment paper and pipe your candy on top of it and let it set for a few hours or overnight.   To save time I often print out six or eight copies of my image to a page, but you can also just slide your template around under the parchment paper.  For the soccer balls shown here I did a google image search and found the perfect image right away.  They were also made using the Candy Pens.

You can get as elaborate with this technique as you want.  For a custom order, I made toppers to match the decorations for a child’s first birthday party.  Although I was originally tempted to hand sketch similar shapes for my templates, I wound up going hard core.  A simple scan of one of the plates gave me an identical image to work with.  These were made using Wilton Candy Melts melted in freezer weight Ziploc bags.  I also used toothpicks to help spread things out in the very tight spots.  These were easily the most elaborate toppers I have made to date, but they received rave reviews and were worth the time I put into them.

You don’t have to have a printed image to do this, either.  You can trace a design from any book or cartoon using parchment paper and use that, or even trace a cookie cutter, or toy.  The Mario star at the bottom was made in under five minutes after I traced a candy tin!  The western themed toppers were lifted from the art work of our camp t-shirts this summer.   During teacher appreciation week I also made apples to top red velvet cupcakes using a hand drawn image.  You can even freehand initials, monograms or names in cursive. 

For visual tutorials of the actual process of piping onto a template under parchment I highly reccomend Bakerella’s post on making chocolate flowers.  It was this post that first put the idea of using chocolate in this fashion into my head.  Once you’ve got that down, head on over to Annie’s Eats and learn how to make the cutest darn butterflies that have ever landed on butter-cream!  Another great tutorial is at www.justjennrecipes.com where she breaks down the creation of black and white cartoon characters: Snoopy has never looked so tasty!

Good luck, use your imagination and remember to have fun!

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Princess of Glass by Jessica Day George

 

Jessica Day George has offered up a wonderful retelling of a very familiar story in her newest novel Princess of Glass.  Being a sucker for fairy tale retellings, this wasn’t a book I could pass by.  The originality of George’s tale is apparent immediately as the protaganist of this Cinderella reimagining is not the maid of cinders and ashes!  Princess Poppy of Westfalin is one of twelve sisters, all of whom spent years under a curse that caused them to dance into exhaustion night after night.  Freed from the enchantment and able to finally enjoy life, the last thing Poppy wants to do is dance.  Yet circumstances find her in a strange country, being feted at balls…and perhaps the only person in the realm who has had experience with evil magics.  As such Poppy recognizes the signs of enchantment when an unknown lady begins to turn heads and capture the attention of her friend, Prince Christian.

It is not necessary to read Princess at the Midnight Ball, Jessica Day George’s previous novel, in order to enjoy Princess of Glass.  However, it would be a shame to miss such a wonderful version of the classic tale “The Twelve Dancing Princesses.”  Poppy’s eldest sister Rose takes center stage in the novel, along with an enterprising ex-soldier turned gardner named Galen.

Other wonderful fairy tale reimaginings include the classic Beauty by Robin McKinley.  McKinley also penned Spindle’s End, Rose Daughter, The Outlaws of Sherwood and Deerskin which are all variations of familiar childhood stories.   Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin is an unforgetable coming of age set on a the campus of a small fine arts college (although, I’ve got to say the current cover is less than appealing – as they say, don’t judge the book!)  Last but not least, Gail Carson Levine as made a career of such offerings as Fairset, Ella Enchanted and more, and fantasy grand dame Mercedes Lackey has been having fun creating a whole world based on various fairy tales in her Tales of the Five Hundred Kingdoms series.

If you prefer your fairy tales all mashed together there’s also Sondheim’s masterpiece musical Into the Woods or Jim Hines’ sometimes spoofy and sometimes serious but altogether entertaining novel The Stepsister Scheme and it’s sequels The Mermaid’s Madness and Red Hood’s Revenge.

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Creating a Party: Theme is the Key

August is a very busy month around here; within six weeks there are seven birthdays in our immediate family.  We have to budget for this time of year like we do for Christmas!  It is also a lot of fun, though, because everyone has such different tastes that each celebration is very different unique.  In an effort to get back to regular content here I would like to walk you through my creative process during the party planning phase. 

The first thing you have to decide for any party, other than the date of your event, is the theme.  For  my son’s birthday  in April we had a very specific them.  Being a six year old boy he decided quite firmly on a Lego Batman party; regular Batman would not do.  The nice folks at Lego cancelled that line of toys several years ago, making this initially seem sort of tricky but it turned out to be a lot of fun.

 I enjoy every aspect of planning a party(except perhaps the cleaning house before guests arrive bit) so this is a fun time for me.  I will spend weeks thinking about what can and cannot work, and what my budget is and how to achieve a great event within it.   One of the more formal aspects of a party, the invitation can also be a very expenive one.  There are whole businesses based on printing custom invitations.  Luckily, in our current computer age it is now pretty simple to achieve a professional look at home.  It is less expensive to buy stationary and print it on your computer than to have some one else do it, and surprisingly simple.   Unfortunately for our Lego Batman party no suitable stationary existed.

That’s okay, though.  The internet is chock full of all sorts of things, including pictures of pretty much every character in the Lego Batman game.  A few minutes brainstorming on the wording, a cut and paste here and there and we had a lovely invitation.  They were printed in color on cardstock at Kinkos for a very reasonable price.  The best part? Our son and his friends were delighted!  My only tip for doing taking this completely from scratch route is to make sure that you have envelopes to match the size of your invitation. 

 Our other nod to having a Lego Batman party was to use the same cute Lego character images to creat a Lego Batman Bingo game, based on Loteria, a Mexican game of chance, much like Bingo.  Loteria uses images instead of numbers and a deck of cards instead of ping pong balls.  This worked out great for a party aimed at kids age six and under, most of whom cannot read yet but have no problem identifying Batman, Robin, Riddler and crew. Lego pieces made the perfect game counters.  We used a bag of store bought Batman party favors as prizes for the winner of each game played.  Each game went very quickly and everyone won several times, which encouraged the kids to keep playing.  It was a lot of fun, and a party activity that I would highly reccomend for all ages 

Cake and decorations are a must at any party, of course.  Like invitations, decorations can be one of the hidden costs of any party.  You can save money here by sticking with simple solid colored paper goods instead of buying the more expensive ones that might match your theme.  I chose yellow and black plates, a solid yellow tablecloth, yellow and black balloons to be cheap (we blew them up) and then “splurged” on Batman napkins to help tie it all together.  Another hidden party cost, for kids at least, are the party favors.  For this party we bought an age appropriate Batman comic book for each guest and also provided bags of cookie that I had made.  Everyone was thrilled with their goodies, we gave very little plastic junk away and promoted reading!  Win-win.

So there you have it: the theme makes the party.  A theme can be incredibly elaborate or as simple as just picking what colors you want to use.  I’d say this Batman party was somewhere on the scale closer to simple than elaborate, though I’ll admit to going all out on the cookies.  I was playing to my strengths there, and just having fun…which could be a handy bit of advice, too.

Over the next month watch for more ideas, as well as recipes for cupcakes, cakes and cookies, as we pull together a Mickey and Minnie Mouse birthday party for a three year old, and a Super Mario party for someone who’s a good bit older!

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Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Cupcakes

Pumpkin Cupcakes with Chocolate Chips and Cream Cheese IcingNothing says ”Fall” quite like the flavor of Pumpkin in baked goods.  Now that the national pumpkin shortage is over and Libby brand canned pumpkin is back on the shelves it is time to indulge your taste buds!

Real Simple offered up a Cake Doctor-esque recipe for Pumpkin Cupcakes in their October Issue.  They really are a fabulous cupcake, and if you leave the icing off can do double duty as a richly moist ”muffin.”  My husband and children ate several for breakfast that way before I got around to icing them.   

 

I can’t resist tweaking a recipe, so here’s my version of Real Simple’s recipe(found in the link above.)  I also stuck with the cream cheese icing I always use instead of the one they provided.

Pumpkin Cupcakes and Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Cupcakes

Ingredients:Pumpkin Cupcakes with Cream Cheese Icing

  • 1 18.5-ounce box yellow cake mix (plus the ingredients called for in the package directions)
  • 1 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 15-ounce can pumpkin puree
  • 2 Tablespoons of water
  • 1 bag of Nestle Mini Chocolate Chips
  • Directions:

    1. Heat oven to 350° F. (325 for Dark/Non-stick pans) Line two 12-cup muffin tins with paper liners.*
    2.  Prepare the cake mix as directed but with the following change: substitute the can of pumpkin puree for the water called for in the package directions, add pumpkin pie spice and cinnamon.  If mixture is too thick or lumpy add up two tablespoons of water to help smooth it out.
    3. Place half of the batter into one of the prepared muffin tins.*  Into remaining batter stir 1/4-1 cup of mini chocolate chips according to taste.  Place chocolate chip batter into remaining tins and bake all cupcakes until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, roughly 18 to 22 minutes. Let cool.

    Cream Cheese Icing

    Ingredients:

    • 1 block (8oz) of cream cheese, room temperature
    • 1 stick of unsalted butter, room temperature
    • four cups of powdered sugar, sifted
    • two teaspoons of vanilla
    1. Cream together butter and cream cheese until smooth and fluffy.  Add powdered sugar in one cup increments, beating on low until fully incorporated after each addition.  Add vanilla, increasing speed to medium and continue to beat the frosting until fluffy.
    2. Frost cooled cupcakes and garnish with candy corn, pumpkins and chocolate drizzles.

    * This recipe only made twenty cupcakes for me; when dividing the batter plan accordingly.

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    Sea Change by Aimee Friedman

    Sea Change by Aimee Friedman

    Sea Change by Aimee Friedman

    Off the coast of Georgia, reachable only by ferry, lies a chain of islands.  At the end of the line is misty, mythic Selkie Island.  Purportedly settled by a pirate who married a mermaid, in bold calligraphy an ancient warning warns those docking “Sailors, beware of Selkie Island! Here Be Monsters!

    Miranda Merchant is amused by both the legend and the warning when her ferry docks, bringing her for the first time to the island where her mother spent summers as a child.  Come to help her mother sort through a surprise inheritance from a grandmother she never knew, Miranda plans to enjoy a week or two at the beach.  Sorting books and heirlooms and a small amount of manual labor seems a small price to pay for a needed change.

     Mystery seems to surround the island after all, though.  Miranda’s mother changes before her eyes into a woman she barely recognizes, complete with a past that Miranda can hardly comprehend.   Secrets from the previous generations collide with those of the current one.  As the case often is in such situations, Miranda learns a great deal about herself even as she discovers her own family history and struggles to divine the truth behind a very compelling myth.

    Sea Change is a rich heady novel, evocative of the the charm found in areas of the Deep South like Savannah.  In addition to the charm of the Spanish Moss and summer mansions, author Aimee Friedman is  unafraid to tackle the class issues.  The divide that exists between the wealthy families who feel that Selkie is “their” island for the summer and the permanent residents who both work and live on the island year round perplexes Miranda even as she feels bound by it.

    Friedman makes every word count.  In only 294 pages the novel covers heartbreak and betrayal, fashion and cliques, science and literature (the Rime of the Ancient Mariner crops up several times, and Miranda is a science junky,) the effects of divorce on family, the previously mentioned class divide and more.  All together it packs quite a punch.  It’s true what a sailor warns Miranda as she leaves with her mother “The island stays with you…”

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    Wings by Aprilynne Pike

    wings_cover_usAprilynne Pike’sdebut novel is an eye-catching beauty.  The eye is drawn to it like a butterfly to nectar.  A book this lovely needs very little in the way of blurb to get me to bring it home, and although I’ve been stung in the past by this tendency, Wings did not disappoint.  In fact, the only disappointment connected to this book is the fact that I did not discover it.  In only it’s second week in print Wings hit the #1 spot on the New York Times children’s best seller list.  Since this honor is well deserved I shall commence to getting over the fact that I wasn’t ahead of the curve on this one.

     

    Laurell Sewell spent the formative years of her life living in a very small town on property that has been in her mother’s family for generations.  Homeschooling  never seemed so idyllic!  Now the family has relocated to a larger town where they own and operate a book store.  For the first time Laurell is thrust into a new public high school, an awkward misery that anyone who has ever had to change schools will appreciate.  In fact, feeling like a stranger in the proverbial strange land is a universal emotion that anyone who’s ever been in high school (or college) can relate to.  As if things weren’t awkward enough for poor Laurell a growth between her shoulder blades turns into a wing like blossom, at which point the novel really takes off!

    Changelings are part of fairy lore throughout history.  The idea of fairies, or Fae, or Seelie has enchanted audiences for centuries.  From Shakespeare’s Midsummer’s Night Dream to modern offerings such as Frewin Jones YA series The Faerie Path or Laurell K. Hamilton’s very adult Meredith Gentry novels, fairies have been done and done again.  They’ve been portrayed as mischevious pixies in Peter Pan and as lucious vampire bait in Charlaine Harris’s Southern Vampire novels (upon which the television show True Blood is based.)  Considering all of these different variations on the myth, Wings really is “a remarkable debut” in that Pike gives us an entirely new take on fairies!

    Without spoiling the reveal as to the origin of Laurell’s Wings, it is safe only to say that the author seamlessly lessons on biology with the action in her novel.  Rarely does magic have a scientific origin; that it is done so well here is thrilling! 

    Wings is to slated to be a series of four novels, and the first one has already been optioned for film by Disney.

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    Rampant by Diana Peterfreund

    Do you know what unicorns, teenager girls and Alexander the Great have in common?  No?  Clearly you need to delve in Diana Peterfreund’s marvelous new novel Rampant.

    Rampant by Diana Peterfreund

     

    Astrid Llewelyn always thought her mother was more than a little nuts.  Besieged with a childhood of graphic tales about killer unicorns and ancestors responsible for the extinction of the race, Astrid has never been able to see the fanciful creatures as cute and cuddly.   Scepticism about her mother’s quirky research obsession turns to belief in one terrifying moment as Astrid’s potential prom date is gored before her eyes by a so called mythical beast.

    Thus begins the adventure in Peterfreund’s Rampant.  A bit Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a bit Roman Holiday and yet very much it’s own unique creation, Rampant leads it’s readers on a journey into another land.  The city of Rome is it’s own character in the novel, along with girls from around the world who gather there to train to do battle against the reemergent Unicorns.  As for Alexander the Great, you’ll just have to read the book to see how he fits in.  You won’t regret it.  Rampant is the best new YA book I’ve read this year.

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    The Lost Quilter by Jennifer Chiaverini

    The Lost Quilter is the 14th entry in the Elm Creek Quilt series writtern by Jennifer Chiaverini.  These novels have also inspired three books of quilting patterns and short stories while the 13th entry in the series (really more of a novella) is flush with recipes appropriate for various seasons of the year.

    an Elm Creek Quilters Novel

    Like previous historical flashback style novels in the series, The Lost Quilter requires little knowldege of the modern day Elm Creek tales.  It can easily be read as a stand alone novel, but readers left hanging will enjoy the fact that it picks up on a tale first begun in 2002′s The Runaway Quilt (book 4.)   Runaway touched on a Pennsylvania family’s history with the Undergound Railway, sparked by the discovery of an antique heirloom quilt.  The Lost Quilter continues slave Joanna’s story, she who’s life so profoundly intersected with that of the Bergstrom’s in the earlier novel.  Runaway Joanna is captured and returned to the south on the eve of the American Civil War.  Sold away from the only family she knows, she finds herself making a new life in South Carolina and longing for the freedom she’d once been so close to.

    Joanna’s tale is bracketed on either end by brief chapters set in present day Elm Creek.  Although it is nice for returning readers to be refreshed as to this story’s place in the history of series matriarch Sylvia’s family tree, and to catch a glimpse of characters who have become beloved friends to some, Joanna’s tale is strong enough to stand on it’s own.

    You don’t have to be an avid quilter, or any sort of seamstress to appreaciate the fine stitching of historical fact and artistic fancy in this inspiring tale of a woman’s courage in the face of constant adversity.

     

    Previously reviewed: Circle of Quilters by Jennifer Chiaverini

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