STONINGTON — Cheryl Wixson has nine rules posted in her classroom at Deer Isle-Stonington High School, where she teaches Introduction to Food Safety and Food Systems.
“Rule No. 5 five is my favorite,” she said while giving a tour of her farm, Rabbit Hill, on a brisk October day. “And Rule No. 5 is ‘don’t apologize.’”
“If you cook for somebody, or if you create something for somebody, you have love in your heart,” Cheryl explained. “And you don’t need to ever apologize for that.”
The Ellsworth American “Maine Dish” cooking columnist, Cheryl is a food educator and business owner. She encourages people to prepare edible and other homemade gifts for the holidays, staying within a budget and using recycled, salvaged and naturally foraged items.
“There’s absolutely no reason why we have to buy a lot of this stuff brand new and then throw it in the dump,” she said.
She has continued the traditions she started when she and her husband, Flip, were raising their three daughters in Bangor. During that period, crafting was more than just assembling gifts to send to extended family. During the holiday season, it was an activity to do together and to foster artistic expression, all while Christmas carols played in the background.
“It’s a real outlet,” Cheryl said. With crafting or cooking, “there’s no right or wrong, it’s just your natural creativity.”
Promoting creativity is especially important to Cheryl in a world where technology — despite its benefits — can sometimes feel pervasive.
“I sometimes think we’ve lost — we’re losing — the opportunity to harness our inner creativity that comes from working with our hands,” she reflected. When teaching, she witnesses how hands-on projects often lead her students to engage their minds. She sees potential in everyone, everywhere.
“To see something, to measure out ingredients, to do the math, to see the chemistry when it rises and then to see the product and to eat it, that to [the students] is an inspiration and something they were able to do with their hands.”
So, what are some easy, thoughtful and inspiring gifts folks can make for their loved ones this holiday season? Cheryl has many ideas, including homemade terrariums and cake mixes.
For the terrariums, crafters can find clear vases at local thrift shops or large glass jugs at Renys.
To fill those terrariums with tiny ecosystems, Cheryl advises simply going on walks to forage natural items.
Rabbit Hill is a certified organic farm, cider company and commercial food processing kitchen. In between farm chores, she likes to escape and collect natural materials, like the many species of moss that carpet the forests behind her house and pinecones that drop from spruce trees. She also searches for shells and rocks along the shore and nearby beach.
Most of the property was wooded when she and her husband purchased it. The couple cleared the land by hand for space to raise their rabbits and establish their gardens where they grow nearly all their food from soil enriched with rabbit manure.
“We came here to live off the land,” Cheryl said.
Just this year, the duo purchased a tractor.
“This is what really got me is this moss,” she said. “You come out here and the inspiration is just…” her voice trailed off while she looked out at the lush, green haven.
After gathering materials, Cheryl built the base of the terrarium inside a large glass jug with accompanying lid. Using samples from her collection of rocks, she placed a mismatch of small pebbles and large stones, some round and smooth and some jagged and quartz-like, inside the glass habitat.
Then, she added her samples of moss. The pincushion moss has the same shape and bounce of its namesake. Another piece looks like seaweed.
A signature of Cheryl’s creations is to combine nature with a little glitter and glam. This terrarium features a metallic red ornament. A pop of color amid its natural landscape.
She will also spray paint containers — some of which have been made from repurposed olive oil tins silver. She transforms the tins into vases, adorned with recycled jewelry, and holding bouquets of natural boughs and berries.
For those with a sweet tooth, Cheryl assembled the dry ingredients for a French Acadian Chocolate Cake mix inside a mason jar.
On a whim, she decorated the glass jar with a red and black ribbon and busted out her glue gun to fasten a pinecone and evergreen to the lid.
“I’m so inspired!” she said while putting the finishing touches on the homemade gift completed in a matter of minutes.
Cheryl wants others to feel inspired too, and participates in Open Farm Days, where the public is invited to Rabbit Hill to learn about organic farming. Farm-goers — Cheryl reports that about 50 to 80 people attend each time — get to walk around the property and bring a picnic, learn about sustainability and water conservation, purchase prepared foods and pet the farm’s rabbits.
All her projects, from making homemade gifts to tending her farm to teaching her students about food and how to make it themselves, coincides with her life’s larger mission.
“I just want to change the world,” she said.
For more information, visit https://cherylwixsonskitchen.com.
French Acadian Chocolate Cake Mix
Makes 6 individual mixes
37.5 oz. pure cane sugar
20.5 oz. Buckwheat (Bouchard Family Farm from Aroostook County)
5.5 oz. cocoa powder unsweetened (Dutch processed is finest)
.5 oz. baking powder
0.3 oz. baking soda
In the bowl of your electric mixer, or in a large bowl, whisk the above ingredients together very thoroughly for 2 minutes or more.
Weigh out each cake mix into a jar or bag. Each portion should weigh 295-300 grams.
French Acadian Chocolate Cake
1 bag or jar French Acadian Chocolate Cake Mix
½ cup applesauce, unsweetened
¼ cup melted butter or oil
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease a loaf pan or small cake pan.
In a medium bowl, combine cake mix, unsweetened applesauce, eggs and melted butter or oil. Whisk together so that there are no lumps. Spoon into prepared pan and bake until a toothpick comes out clean. About 20 to 30 minutes.
Serving suggestions: Top cake with powdered sugar. May be served with whipped cream, yogurt or ice cream as topping. This cake is also delicious with a frosting (but not really needed). A festive idea would be to tie a candy cane to the jar. Other options are crushing the candy cane and either adding the chips to the batter or frost the cake and sprinkle the chips on the top.