Sunday, December 23, 2012

Reindeer Cookies

I was perusing Pinterest yesterday and came across the cutest little cookie idea. I knew the girls would just love to try it, so we off and braved the long lines and "crazies" at the store just to pick up a few odds and ends to make these adorable cookies.  What could be more festive on a holiday tray of goodies I ask you, but Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer himself?

Cute lil' Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer cookie

I got the idea from the ladies home journal, which includes their own peanut butter cookie recipe.  I just used our regular family peanut butter cookie recipe and added the reindeer details.  By the way, if there is a nut allergy you do not have to make peanut butter, but I would guess plain chocolate chip cookie dough (minus the chips) would work just fine too.

We used 1 inch dough baller to make these, the first ones were a bit too big  so we made them slightly smaller after that

The trick to making these reindeer faces is to have all the ingredients ready before the hot pan of cookies comes out of the oven.  You need to place the eyes, red nose, and antlers while the cookie is still hot and pliable.  We made three little bowls of:

Red Peanut butter MnM's (because they were larger and round)
Pretzels broken into 1 inch "antlers"
Chocolate chips for the eyes

The antlers were fun to make, sort of free form as you brake larger twist pretzels apart
Once the cookies have baked for 10-12 minutes pull them out of the oven hot and place the horns down at an angle but almost flat against the cookie so they will stay.  Be sure not to push all the way through the back of the cookie.  Quickly place the chocolate chip eyes with the points down and push down as you add the red nose.

You have to work quickly here and if little hands are helping you make sure they do not touch the hot pan

Soon you will have a whole pan full of cute little faces staring up at you.

The antlers will surprisingly stay if you put them in before the cookie cools

I let these guys cool completely on the pan because I was afraid to move them.  Turns out the eyes, nose, and antlers did stay put if they were put in when the cookie was still hot and allowed to completely cool before moving them to a cooling rack.  After that I transferred them to a cookie carrier and I was extra careful on how I stacked them, making sure the antlers of the reindeer below was not crushed by the reindeer above.   A double batch of our regular peanut butter cookie recipe yielded 50 of these guys.

How cute are these faces? 
This is our first attempt at making these reindeer cookies and let me tell you, they were a big hit!  The girls took turns, each getting to do faces for one hot pan of cookies.  I can't wait to see our cousins and Grandma's face on Christmas day when they see our brand new fun creations.

Rudolph with your nose so bright... won't you guide my sleigh tonight...

Anyway, just thought I'd show you a last minute, late additions to our normal holiday treats.  I believe this will be a new tradition for us.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays everyone.  :)

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Tips on How to Take Better Pictures

My guess is you are going to be taking a lot of pictures over the next week or two.  Pictures of kids, pictures of pets, pictures of friends and family doing lovely holiday activities. 

I just wanted to share a little video I made a few years ago for my MOPS group.  MOPS stands for Mother's of Preschoolers.  We made a zany little 10-step video on how average moms with an average point and shoot camera could take better pictures.  I'm no expert mind you, I took a couple of photography classes in college and then the hubs and have worked in television for years and are videographers by trade.  Many people however, have come back after watching this video and said the tips have really helped them out.  Simple tips for framing and lighting can really make a big difference in the finished shot.  You will forever and from now not be able to gaze at that giant amount of empty space above most people's heads in photos and not remember the term "dead cat room".  Feel free to check out the video.  (My friend Michelle and I get wackier and cheesier as the video goes on, hopefully you get our sense of humor.  We crack ourselves up.)

So just a few minor adjustments here and there, and your family photos could turn out a lot better this year!  Have a wonderful holiday season!

By the way, No stuffed cats or small children were harmed in the making of this video :)

Friday, December 21, 2012

Ice Cream - as Gifts!

Just a quick post as we are getting down to holiday crunch time, but I am always on the look out for creative gifts I can give neighbors, coworkers, and teachers.  I love to think outside the box and I was thinking especially of what I could give my girls' teachers this year as a Christmas gift.  I already had them fill out my free printable survey at the beginning of the year, so I know what they like and don't like.  I also talked to a lot of my teacher friends on what they would love to receive, because they tend to get an endless supply of mugs, lotions, and candles.  Suddenly it hit me!  I can make them homemade quarts of ice cream!  What?  I was so excited because we have had six months to perfect our recipes, and now it will make a perfect gift!

Quarts of ice cream - Makes for great little gifts
The nice thing about this is, you can tailor the flavor for the person you are giving it to. Since I knew ahead of time none of the gift receivers were lactose intolerant, I opted to make our family's favorite recipe, that also happened to be the very popular holiday flavor of Pink Peppermint.  I just had to go to Cash n' Carry (restaurant supply store) and find empty one-quart paper containers and lids.

The lids and containers were sold in bulk separately but now we will have them on hand for future gifts
After that we use our 2-quart ice cream maker and make a batch of our Pink Peppermint recipe.  I scooped one quart into each container while the ice cream was still in the soft stage and let it come to a hard freeze in the paper container.

Our Pink Peppermint ice cream has chunks of smashed candy cane in it, for extra peppermintiness.
Who wouldn't want to open a gift like this?

cool and yummy ice cream treat
After that it was just a matter of how I was going to present it.  I went and got some ice cream scoops and decided to attach them to the top of the present.  It got a little tricky trying to secure it to a round frozen container.  Let's just say I used extra tape on the bottom and the top to make sure it would stay.

working quickly to wrap as I didn't want the ice cream to melt

After that I made a simple card out of card stock.  Red card stock as the base and white for the message.  I had some old crinkle scissors lying around so I tried to make the edges of the white note fancier.  I added the "Thank-you for being such a cool teacher" to the front.  I used rubber cement to seal them together.

On the back I added a personalized thank you note and also explained what the gift was, ingredients, etc.
I actually did this late at night so I ended up storing these in the freezer with the scoops, ribbons, and all.

I just love the shiny little ice cream scoop across the top with all the curling ribbon

I added the labels last minute in the morning, because I wasn't sure what the rubber cement glue would do in the freezer.  After that it was only a race against the clock to get it to school (luckily it was close by) and present it to the teachers so they could get it to a freezer until the end of the day.  They seemed very excited about receiving their gifts!  By the way if you don't have the ability to make your own ice cream, you could pick up a quart of their favorite flavor and present it the same way.  I love it.  A little unexpected but very appreciated.  

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Hot Mulled Apple Cider

Need a warm drink to serve to family and friends this season?  Our gated community has this annual tradition where one night in December there will be some porches throughout the neighborhood that hand out holiday beverages and snacks. Everyone walks around visiting and admiring each others Christmas displays. The snacks on each porch are different.  Some have eggnog and treats, some have cocoa and gingerbread.  Santa photo ops, candy, and cookies are yet on another porch, and my porch is now famous for my mulled hot apple cider.  People come back year after year saying how they've been looking forward to my cider, so that makes it a sure-fire winner in my book.  We also love to make it for Thanksgiving and Christmas when the family is together.

Hot mulled apple cider - always a crowd favorite

This recipe is great for a large gathering or party because it simmers for a few hours until serving time, and as people start to drink it, you can add more juice as you go along, thus stretching it out to serve more people.  You can make this in a big pot on the back of the stove or in a crock pot to save counter space.  Gather the following ingredients: (Full printable recipe at the end of the post)

2 large containers apple juice (96oz 3 full quarts each)
3/4 cup brown sugar
cinnamon sticks
whole all spice berries
whole cloves
2 oranges

Start with one 96oz container of apple juice and pour it into your pot.  You want to fill it up about 1 1/2 inches from the top.  Depending on the size of your pot you can add more juice from your second container.  I keep the extra juice on hand to refill the cider and also to cool down any kid's cups.

This recipe is very kid friendly as well - apple juice is the base

Next add 3/4 cup brown sugar and stir together

The creepy dark blob at the bottom is the brown sugar slow spreading out

Next you want to cut off a section of cheesecloth about 12 inches long.  Cheese cloth can be found in the baking and sometimes cookware sections of most stores.  I have also found it randomly hanging in aisles as a bonus display item throughout the store, so keep your eyes peeled.  If I find some I stock up and grab a few because when it comes time and I actually need them, they are no where to be found.  Get your 12 inches of cheesecloth wet, wring it out, and lay it on the counter.

Cheese cloth.  See-through mesh that lets you add flavor without chunks in your food!
Next, take four medium cinnamon sticks and break them in half and lay them in the middle of the cheesecloth.  Add exactly thirteen whole allspice berries.  Not twelve, not fourteen.  Thirteen.  I don't know why this exact number is true, but I have added more one time on a whim and the cider takes on a weird strong spice taste, so thirteen is the magical number.

This will make your house smell wonderful, by the way

Next you want to roll up your spices in the cheesecloth.  Try to seal them into the center of the cloth.  Then tie up the long sides in a simple X knot.  Place this spice packet into the apple juice in the pot.

The cheesecloth will let the spices "mull" into the juice, changing into cider

Next you want to grab two oranges and some whole cloves

Two more lovely smells that add to the holidays

Take whole cloves and push them into the peel of the orange. Put a clove about every 1 inch all the way around.  Sometimes the tops of the cloves are sharp, so I use a paper towel to help push them in without hurting myself.  Once there are cloves all the way around I will cut the orange in half, and then cut each side into three slices

Your hands will smell delicious after this by the way
Do this for both oranges.  Now as you put each slice in the pot, squeeze out some of the orange juice and try to throw the slices in clove side down.  They will roll around no matter what you do, so don't worry about it too much.

Once all the oranges are in (and your spice pack is totally submerged underneath them in the liquid) turn on your burner to medium low and keep an eye on it.  It's okay to bring it to almost a boil then back it off to medium low.  If you have a crock pot, set it on low.  You don't want this to boil, or even simmer, but to just get warm and toasty for at least three hours as the spices start to spread througout. Feel free to stir from time to time.

After about 3 hours of mulling, your house will smell fabulous and your cider is ready to serve.  Like I said, as people start to scoop out mugs you can slowly add more juice in.  I keep the pot on "low" for the whole party.  If it's too hot for kids, cool it off with some extra apple juice.  After the party you can save the left overs in a pitcher in the fridge and heat it up for single servings the next day in the microwave. Toss the used bag of cheesecloth with the spices away, but here's a tip: Save the left over orange wedges and put them in your garbage disposal to make it smell nice. Here are some shots by the way of the last four years of our porch during the neighborhood "Holiday Happenings".

We would have Christmas music playing on the radio, and I would keep the mulled cider warm on the side burner of the BBQ. People would come and visit for a few and move on to the next house.  It was a great way to meet new people in the neighborhood too.  All in all it has been a a very nice holiday tradition.  Enjoy the cider!  Full printable recipe found here.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Quick 2-Hour Fluffy Scarf

It's that time of year for gift giving, and we are coming down to wire to finish up projects.  I had in my possession some extra thick, chunky yarn that was super soft and a lovely color.  I knew I wanted to make a scarf for a friend but with such a thick yarn I wasn't sure what pattern to use. I came across a very easy pattern, it only uses two of the basic crochet stitches: chain, and double crochet.  It's even labeled as a "beginner" scarf.  Who knew that with just the basics you could makes something as lovely as this:

Thick and Chunky scarf - super soft and adorable
The best thing is that I was able to crank this out in about 2 hours.  This is amazing to me because I have been working a lot lately on intricate scarves like the crocodile stitch that take so much longer.  The key to quick quick scarves is an over sized bulky yarn...and the clincher a GIANT hook.  I used the Lion Brand Homespun Thick and Quick (named well I see) in the color of "waterfall" (weight category 6) and this giant "P" sized crochet hook.

Big hook + Big yarn + quick project
Now before yesterday I really didn't realize the crochet hooks sizes went up so far!  When you buy a pack of hooks they usually go from E, F, G, H, I, J, and K.  So I made a special trip to find some bigger hooks.  I stumbled across an "N" and this "P".  I had to laugh because next to my regular hooks, they looked like giants.

Normal sized crochet hooks from bottom to top, G, I, the enormous N, and the white one is big daddy P
I felt like my hands had shrunk. This was my first attempt at big chunky yarn and I was nervous.  Turns out I had nothing to fret about.  The pattern starts with a chain of 87 or as long as you want to make the scarf.  I ended up doing 107 across. The only requirement was that it was an odd number of chains.  After that it was double crochets, chain, skip a stitch and double crochet across (Free pattern link at the bottom of the post)

I wish you could feel this scarf.  It is so soft and fluffy

You work across laterally and it takes a little practice to feel where the chain holes are to start, but after a while you can find them easily. The skipped chain makes a square "hole" in the scarf that gives it this waffle or ladder effect.  Here's a close up of the design.

I'm loving the colors of baby blue, periwinkle and aqua here
So there you have it.  I think I had this finished after watching a double episode of Amazing Race.  I couldn't believe how nice it turned out.  I ended up making a matching hat to complete the gift.

Last minute homemade gifts - Made with love
So if you crochet and have a few extra people you still have to get gifts for, consider this thick and quick scarf.  Here is a link to the easy free pattern I found.  Also if this has inspired you to crochet but you don't know where to start, I highly recommend Teresa over on the "Crochet Geek" on youtube.  She has beginning stitches in slow motion and I have learned a ton from her. Thanks so much and enjoy!

Monday, December 10, 2012

Easy Hearty Crockpot Stew

I guess I'm on a kick of my hubby's favorite things lately, but seriously, his all time favorite dinner is a hearty beef stew.  I thought I'd give you our recipe as it is a very easy to make, cooks on low all day, and tastes great!  Not only that but my picky girls will eat tons of the soft carrots in the stew when only one out of the three of them will eat carrots the cold regular way in every day life.  Picture it.  It's a cold blustery winter day... you come through the door and sit down to a big ol' simmering bowl of this:

Homemade hearty beef stew

You only need a few simple ingredients to pull this "man meal" off. After that you just need a slow roasting oven or a crockpot and some time.  Gather the following ingredients (full printable recipe at the end of the post):

2-3 pounds stew meat
1 chopped onion (or 1/2 bag frozen chopped onions)
1 bag baby carrots
2-3 stalks of celery (chopped)
2-4 russet potatoes (peeled, chopped into bite-sized chunks)
1 can beef broth (+1 can of water)
garlic powder
parsley flakes
seasoning salt (or salt and pepper)
Worcestershire sauce

Take your defrosted stew meat and place inside two grocery bags (doubled up).  Pour in a couple big scoops of flour and add some seasoning salt and pepper to the bag.  Twist the bag closed at the top and shake the contents together, until the meat is covered in the flour and seasoning.  Pour into the bottom of your roasting pan or crock pot. This recipe is quick and easy, no browning of the meat required.

the stew meat covered in flour and seasoning goes in first
Next, you want to chop up an onion, or use my awesome time saver of a bag of frozen chopped onions and dump in half the bag.

frozen onions mean no tears! Hooray.
Dump in a bag of baby carrots, or as many baby carrots as you want

baby carrots will save you chopping time!
Next chop up 2-3 stalks of celery and add to the pot

onions, carrots, and celery are your passport to flavor town
Peel and chop up 2-4 russet potatoes into bite-sized chunks and toss in the pot.

Next pour in one can of beef broth, plus one can of water into the pot

Next come the spices.  I have to say, that spices in the recipe are KEY to it working out and tasting right.  If you under season you will have a very blah meal.  The seasonings I like to use are:  Seasoning salt, garlic powder, paprika, parsley flakes, and Worcestershire sauce

Behold, the spice of life.  Sorry, couldn't resist.

I shake hearty amounts of each one of these into the stew.  Ok well I go easy on the garlic powder since my family doesn't like that flavor, but you are seasoning a lot of meat and veggies, so a few solid shakes of each spice flavor will not hurt.

Now all you have to do is slap the lid on and plug this baby in and cook for 8 hours.  You can make this in the morning, set it on low and when you come home later your dinner will be ready.  It must be noted that if you have a NEW crock pot that burns the snarf out of everything on low, then this recipe will cook in half the time and the meat will be tough.  I highly recommend chucking this kind of crock pot out the window (or take it back to the store) and get a roasting oven where you can control the temperature (see my rant here).  I set my lovely roasting oven at 200º, right below boiling, which is the perfect temp to cook low and slow all day.

By the way, if I am home I will stir the stew occasionally throughout the day and half way through I will add another round of spices, as the flavor tends to cook out a bit.  Now it's been 8 hours and you open the lid to find this:

Mmm beef stew.  Almost ready to eat!
This next step is optional, and it depends on the consistency of the liquid of the finished stew.  If it is thick enough for your tastes then check seasonings and then serve.  If you want the liquid to be a little thicker, do this. Put a few spoonfuls of flour in a bowl and add some water a little bit at a time. You don't want a thick paste or a runny liquid, but you want to create a little smooth slurry that will act as a thickener.  Pour this into the stew and stir slowly.  You will instantly see the stew thicken.  I tend to do this about 3o minutes before serving.

Mixing flour and  water together first will eliminate lumps in your stew (this works for gravy too)
Now the last step is to stir the stew and TASTE it.  The meat should be tender, the carrots, should slice through easily, the potatoes should still keep their shape but you can still run a fork through them easily.  This is also your last chance to add more seasoning.  I will usually add more Worcestershire, seasoning salt, and parsley flakes here for a brighter green color and stir one more time.  Scoop into bowls and serve with warm, soft, french bread

Stew Stew Stew... Oh how my hubby loves you.

One big bowl is all you need and a more satisfying meal can not be found.

This also freezes well (not that ours lasts that long) and Mr. D. likes to take portions every day to work, so he can enjoy his stew non stop for days at a time.  I say are you sick of the stew yet? And his answer is always a resounding "not even close!"  :)

Full printable recipe found here.  Enjoy!

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Coconut Macaroons

Well in the midst of all of that Thanksgiving cheer, my hubby Mr. D had a birthday.  His most favorite flavors trend towards the tropical, so on his actual birthday I tried to spoil him with some chewy, sweet, coconut macaroons. 

If you are a fan of coconut, you will be a big fan of these coconut macaroons
I've tested a few recipes over the years but surprisingly, the easiest one turns out to be the best!  Not only that but it has very few ingredients. It doesn't even have flour (if you have a gluten concern).  You can thank my "friend" Ina Garten, (who as you might remember doubles as my imaginary neighbor in my dream world) for this recipe.  Preheat your oven to 325º and you will need:

1 bag (14 oz) sweetened coconut
1 can (14 oz) sweetened condensed milk
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 extra large egg whites (room temperature)
1/4 teaspoon salt

In a mixing bowl, put the sweetened coconut flakes, the condensed milk, and the vanilla.

So few ingredients, but such a delicious cookie
She says to use the egg whites of 2 extra large eggs.  They must have very large hens over there in the Hamptons because my eggs were on the medium to small side, so I did three medium egg whites.  After separating the room temperature eggs, put them in the Kitchenaid mixer or with a hand mixer, add the salt, and start to blend.

Eggs, the greatest cooking invention ever
Whip on high for a few minutes and these will start to get white and fluffy.

getting fluffy
The whisk attachment is perfect for this, and you want to get this to "medium stiff peaks".  I was so excited when this puffed up pretty big and I then totally forgot to take a picture of the peaks.  The next step is to "fold" aka stir the fluffy egg mixture slowly into the heavier coconut/condensed milk mixture until they are combined.

Then, to be all food networky, I got my baking sheet, my silpat mat, and my pampered chef scoop and made perfect little scoops of dough onto the tray.  I'm sure wherever Ina Garten was in the world, she paused for a just moment and nodded her head in loving approval.

No-stick silpat mats are great for this type of cookie
Bake in the 325º oven for 25-30 minutes or until golden around the edges and the tops are slightly browned.

hot macaroons, right from the oven

Cool on a wire rack and serve!  This recipe made me about 30 ball sized macaroons.  

The hubby was so surprised when he came home.  The texture is very thick and chewy.

like a big ol' sweet lump of coconut

The condensed milk, (or is it the egg whites?), make this almost carmelized crispy edge that is my favorite part.  I would actually just go and eat the edges off of all the cookies on the plate if I was allowed.  This makes me believe I should probably try that other kind of macaron (the French kind) soon.  They are made with egg whites, almond flour, and are pretentious and tricky so that would be a great goal for a blog in the future.

coconut macaroons!
These go great still warm with a tall glass of milk or for another idea after they are cool, dip the bottom of the cookies in a bit of melted chocolate and let them harden up on some wax paper. These would be great for parties, gifts for neighbors or teachers, child care providers or even cookie exchanges.  I went above and beyond just these cookies and ended up making him homemade coconut ice cream with a pineapple syrup to pour over the top... AND I even toasted up some sweet coconut to sprinkle over the top.  I'll share those recipes soon!  By the way, Ina Garten's original printable recipe can be found here.

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