This Yuletide, we invite you to take a break from the store aisles and give your loved ones the gift of experience. Offer them the chance to learn something new, try something they’ve always wanted to do, or create memories that will last longer than the snow on the ground.

We sent writer Matt Crossman out to test a few of the classes and adventure lessons offered around the state. He climbed trees, made cheese and lotion, and orientated in the wilderness with nothing more than a map, a compass, and a few friends.

As the holiday season approaches, we’ll be publishing all of these out-of-the-box ideas right here, so check back soon for more.

GIFT IDEA: Cheese- or other product-making lessons on farms, artisan cooking lessons

PERFECT FOR: Fans of history, self-reliance, and cooking, plus children and people who love animals

WHY: Give a man cheese, and he’ll eat for a day. Teach him how to make cheese, and he’ll make a pizza, and you just might get a slice

Take one step onto the farm owned by Sandi and Keith Bentz, and you don’t have to ask why they named it Heaven on Earth Ranch. The 360- degree view reveals rolling hills for miles and miles. There is no sound except that created by animals (on the rare occasions that helicopters or planes fly overhead, they do more to prove the silence than to detract from it), and there are no smells except those created by animals.

Sandi and Keith are practitioners and advocates of the homesteading lifestyle and have learned by trial and error over the last 11 years how to become self-sufficient. Now they are turning a building on the Heaven on Earth property into an educational facility so they can pass along what they have learned. They want to teach people about life on a farm and about how simple life was before it got so complicated.

I visited their farm, which is about an hour northeast of Kansas City, one sun-kissed Saturday to learn how to make cheese and goat’s milk lotion. I brought my 10-year-old daughter with me, and she helped with the cheese and made the lotion herself with plans to give it to her mom/my wife as a present. She laughed in delight when she held a week-old baby rabbit and petted a day-old calf, for which she offered a half-dozen name suggestions, all of them ice-cream related because the calf’s mom is named Sundae. That laughter was nothing compared to her reaction a week later when she found out Sandi and Keith had named the calf after her.

The Bentzes own 22 head of Texas Longhorn cattle here and another 17 in Illinois, plus 10 goats, and ducks, honeybees, so many chickens they can’t name them all, rabbits, worms, and a Jersey cow for milking named Elsie.

Elsie provided the gallon of milk from which Sandi and I made a pound of mozzarella. The cheese was surprisingly easy to make. There are only five ingredients: milk, citric acid, rennet, salt, and water. The only “skills” needed are the ability to measure, read a thermometer, stir, and knead.

Heaven on Earth Ranch
Sandi and Keith keep goats on their farm, and they teach people how to make lotion from goat’s milk

We start by pouring the milk and  citric acid into a giant pot and heating it up. Then we add the rennet. Sandi stirs the concoction with a spoon, judging by what she sees with her eyes and feels with her hand through the spoon when it curdles enough to begin the separation process. The temperature is crucial, too; the goal is 105 degrees for this step.

“See the way it’s curdling?” Sandi asks as the soon-to be-cheese in the pot looks a little bit like Greek yogurt. “It’s getting close.”

When it has curdled enough, I pour the mixture over a colander. Sandi saves the leftover liquid, known as whey, to feed to the chickens. We transfer the “cheese” to a glass bowl and pop it in the microwave.

Although Sandi and Keith pursue a simpler lifestyle, they are not anti-technology. They text and send emails and have a website and Facebook page. And as we make the cheese, Sandi jokes, “You wonder: What did they do years ago without a microwave?”

Whatever they did, it took longer, that’s for sure. In part thanks to the microwave, making the cheese takes less than an hour. We knead it like pizza dough to squeeze more whey out, put it back in the microwave, and start over. When it is just the right texture—harder than dough but not as hard as finished cheese—Sandi puts it into a circular pan and places it in cold water to cool.

My daughter makes the lotion. She loves to help my wife cook at home, so she is comfortable measuring the avocado oil, almond oil, phenonip, wax, stearic acid, water, and milk. She puts all the ingredients in the microwave, sets the timer, pulls it out when it is done, and then pours it into the blender.

“It looks like a milkshake or whipped cream,” she says as she peers into the blender. “But I don’t want to eat it.” She gently touches the button on the blender and jumps when it whirs to life faster than she expects. She had the same reaction, times 10, when she petted a Texas Longhorn outside and he shook his head.

Sandi shows writer Matt Crossman how to make cheese using simple techniques.

Sandi lets my daughter pick the lotion’s scent and the color of the plastic container. As we rub on the lotion, it feels less greasy than most lotions I’ve encountered, and Sandi says it works particularly well on chapped heels.

Both Sandi and Keith have jobs outside of the farm. She is a bank teller and he is a corrections officer. In 2006, the couple moved from Illinois to this 40-acre plot in Weatherby (60 miles northeast of Kansas City) to try to get away from the harried city life. As proof their lives have changed despite still holding down “city” jobs, Keith adds: “People tell me I drive too slow.”

Heaven on Earth sells honey, eggs, simple household cleaning supplies, excess produce from the garden, goat’s milk lotion, and goat’s milk soap at a local farmer’s market. The Bentzes grow or produce about 75 percent of what they eat.

My daughter and my wife are huge fans of the Little House books; they have read all of them out loud multiple times. As we drove home from Heaven on Earth—after I finally convinced my daughter that we did, in fact, have to go home—it occurred to me that our day there was as close to stepping into one of the Little House books as we’ll ever get. I didn’t plan it that way, but I gave my daughter the gift of spending one day like the young Laura Ingalls spent all of hers. As for the cheese we made … only half of it made it home. We devoured the rest.

Photos by Dennis Coello