Monday, December 29, 2014

Just One More Thing: Cheese and Date Cocktail Nibbles

It's been a busy year: you've worked hard, the holidays have been hectic, and all you want to do now is relax. Still, you may yet have more guests to feed, more family to entertain, and possibly another party or two before the year is out—and the thought of making just one more thing is enough to tip you over the edge! But I'm here to help, with a simple, quick, and very tasty little nibble that can be thrown together in no time:

cheese date snack appetizer

Cheese and Date Cocktail Nibbles

Dates (pitted)

Slice cheese into pieces roughly the length and width of your dates, and about 1/4 inch thick. Skewer a date onto a toothpick, followed by a piece of cheese. Repeat until you have as many as you need, or until you run out of cheese and dates :-)

Notes: You can certainly stuff the cheese inside the dates by slicing the dates open along one side, and even add a pecan or walnut half as well. Use your favorite cheese for these, or try a variety—a good extra sharp cheddar goes extremely well with the sticky sweetness of the dates. If you don't like dates, use another kind of dried fruit like apricots or plums.


Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Not A Creature Was Stirring

I do love the holidays, and I start enjoying them earlier than most. Even throughout the rest of the year, I look forward to a season full of my favorite things:


decorated christmas tree



...and making gifts!

I love the lights, the holiday-themed activities, visits with family and friends - and, of course, all the delicious treats! And yet, here's the funny part: when it's finally time for Christmas Day, I'm ready to wind everything down. I want to rest, relax, and enjoy a calm, leisurely day without any muss or fuss.

So here's my Christmas wish for us all: a very merry day full of nothing too complicated, stressful, or difficult, in a place where you feel comfortable and at home - and maybe just a little extra time for a nap or two :-)

Merry Christmas!!!


Monday, December 22, 2014

Santa, Baby: Candy Cane Kiss Cookies

Christmas Day is almost here, and that means having milk and cookies ready for the Big Guy on Christmas Eve! These kiss cookies just might be the ideal treat for Old St. Nick—plus, the kids can help you with mixing the dough and topping each cookie with a kiss. And don't worry, the Man in Red won't mind if you sneak a few before he gets there ;-)

Candy Cane Kiss Cookies

Candy Cane Kiss Cookies

One bag candy cane kisses
One box chocolate cake mix
1/3 cup flavorless oil
2 large eggs

Unwrap kisses and set aside in a bowl. Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. In a large bowl, stir together cake mix, oil and eggs until fully combined. Roll 1/2 Tablespoons of dough into balls and place about 2 inches apart on lined baking sheets (you will have about 60 cookies total). Bake until set, about 10-12 minutes. As soon as cookies come out of the oven, place a kiss firmly on top of each. Let cookies cool completely before storing (kisses will stay soft for quite a while).

Notes: Yes, you've seen something like this from me before, but these cookies are so cute and easy, it was worth repeating! The candy stripes on the kisses are particularly festive, and the combination of peppermint and chocolate is a holiday classic. Again, use any mini-sized chocolate candies you have on hand to top these cookies, or roll the dough in sprinkles for extra color and crunch. The cookies themselves are even great plain!


Friday, December 19, 2014

In The Bleak Midwinter: Planting Garlic

Traditionally, garlic is planted on the shortest day of the year, and harvested on the longest day. The idea is that the garlic will overwinter during the colder months, then start to sprout and grow as the ground warms up in the Spring. By Summer, the heads are full and ready to use, or to be cured and stored as needed.

garlic bulb

For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, the Winter Solstice falls on December 21st this year. Once again, I will break the cloves apart from a lovely garlic head and push each one about 2 inches down into the dirt. In turn, each clove will (hopefully) produce a whole new head of garlic for me to enjoy. I realize that many gardeners and farmers plant their garlic a few months earlier, but I wanted to try it the old-fashioned way this time. And, if all goes well, I will have a very tasty update for you in about six months!!


Monday, December 15, 2014

Some Like It Hot: How to Make Hand-Stitched Holiday Coasters

As the days close in and the air gets colder, we all start reaching for our biggest mug and fill it with a hot beverage to keep us feeling toasty and warm. And what could be better than a cute, festive coaster upon which to place it? These are easy, sweet, and another homemade item perfect for holiday giving. Package a set of coasters along with a loved one's favorite coffee or tea. Include a jar of homemade hot cocoa mix for an even more personal touch!

handmade holiday christmas drink coasters

Hand-Stitched Holiday Coasters

Colored craft felt
Solid or patterned fabrics (remnants/fat quarters)
Embroidery flosses or No. 5 mercerized cotton threads
Doll needles
Straight pins
Templates or cookie cutters in desired shapes
Ballpoint pen
Sharp scissors (regular and pinked)

For each coaster, cut out two circles about 4 inches in diameter - one in felt for the back, and one for the front in either felt or fabric  (I traced around the bottom of a yogurt container for the coasters pictured above). Create an embellishment using a small template or mini cookie cutter in the shape of your choice. Center the embellishment on the front circle, secure with a straight pin, and stitch around the edge leaving a small border. Once done, match the front and back of coaster together, smooth and secure with straight pins. Again, leaving a small border, stitch along the outside edge, tie off in between the two layers and bury the "tail" in between them as well. Create a set of coasters with either all the same embellishment, or mix and match for variety.

Notes: This is a great way to use odds and ends of felt and fabric you may already have on hand. When working with fabric pieces, the embellishments can be cut with straight scissors, but any fabric fronts should be cut with pinking shears to help keep them from fraying. Instead of an embellishment, the fronts can be embroidered with a festive design or the recipient's initial.


Friday, December 12, 2014

When Irish Eyes Are Smiling: Orange-Currant Shortbread Buttons

While making my Christmas cookie list this year, I realized my mind had somehow wandered ahead to St. Patrick's Day. I started dreaming of things like chocolate-stout cake, and had visions of soda bread dancing in my head. Since I like making my soda bread with orange zest and currants, I decided to bake them into a cookie for this holiday, too:

orange currant shortbread cookies

Orange-Currant Shortbread Buttons

1 cup butter, softened
1/2 cup powdered sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
Zest of one orange
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup dried currants
2 Tablespoons (or so) granulated sugar, for sprinkling (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

In a large bowl, cream butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. Stir in vanilla, salt, and orange zest, then blend in the flour. Add the currants and mix until combined. Take about 1/2 Tablespoonfuls of dough and roll into balls, then flatten gently between your hands (buttons should be about 1/4 inch thick and an inch in diameter). Place on lined baking sheets and prick once in the center with a knife or skewer. Sprinkle with granulated sugar, if using. Bake for about 12-15 minutes, or until the buttons are set and lightly golden around the edges. Remove, let cool completely, and store in an airtight container.

Notes: The orange zest smells (and tastes) heavenly in these cookies, and the currants add a mellow, chewy sweetness without being overly fruity. The basic dough can also be used as a starting point for your favorite flavors, or left plain for classic, buttery shortbread.


Monday, December 08, 2014

Chestnuts Roasting: Chestnut-Chocolate Wafers

Chestnuts are a decadent addition to both sweet and savory dishes during the holidays, and they even work in cookies, too! Sweetened chestnut puree gives these buttery, flaky wafers all the sugar they need, and bittersweet chocolate provides a nice balance:

chestnut chocolate wafer cookies

Chestnut-Chocolate Wafers

1 cup butter, softened
1/2 cup sweetened chestnut puree (creme de marrons)
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup finely chopped bittersweet chocolate (about 4 oz.)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

In a large bowl, cream butter and chestnut puree together until smooth, then stir in salt. Blend in flour, then add chopped chocolate and mix until combined. Divide the dough in half, flatten into discs and wrap tightly in plastic wrap. Chill for about 30 minutes, or until the dough is firm enough to work (but not chilled solid). Roll out dough on a floured surface to 1/4 inch thick and cut into shapes using 2-2 1/2 inch cutters. Re-roll scraps, dusting with flour as needed, and continue to cut shapes until the dough is gone. Place the wafers on lined baking sheets, prick them lightly with a fork a few times and chill 5-10 minutes, then bake for about 12 minutes, or until the wafers are evenly golden around the edges and along the bottoms. Remove and let wafers cool completely before storing in an airtight container.

Notes: Chestnut puree can be found in specialty food stores, purchased online, or made at home! If you prefer, use semi-sweet or milk chocolate in place of the bittersweet chocolate. You can also add a 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract or a 1/4 teaspoon almond extract, if desired.


Friday, December 05, 2014

From Russia, With Love: Russian Teacakes

Well, perhaps not :-) A quick web search revealed Russian Teacakes don't actually come from Russia, and only urban legends as to how Russia is associated with them in the first place. No matter their origins, this much is clear: they are incredibly delicious, and made in countries all over the world!

russian teacake cookies

Russian Teacakes

1 cup butter, softened
1/2 cup powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup finely chopped walnuts
1 additional cup powdered sugar, for rolling

Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

In a large bowl, cream butter and sugar together until fluffy; blend in vanilla and salt. Add flour until combined, then stir in walnuts. Bring dough together with your hands (wrap tightly in plastic and chill for a few minutes if dough seems to soft at this stage).  Roll dough into one-inch balls and place an inch apart on lined baking sheets. Bake until set and just barely colored, about 8-10 minutes. Let cool on baking sheets for two minutes, then roll immediately in powdered sugar and place on lined racks; once completely cooled, roll in powdered sugar again and store in an airtight container.

Notes: These are the first things I make when I start my holiday baking. The rich, buttery dough makes for a long-lasting cookie, and the flavor only improves with time. The dough can be made ahead and stored in the fridge for a few days, wrapped tightly in plastic wrap and flattened into a disc. Allow to come up to room temperature and proceed as above.


Monday, December 01, 2014

THM Picks: Holiday Classics

It's no secret this is my favorite time of year, and I have a number of favorite movies I like to watch along with it! Although many classic films tend to be a bit more sentimental than we're used to these days, the sheer craftsmanship more than makes up for it. So when you've watched every adaptation of "A Christmas Carol" known to man, and "It's A Wonderful Life" just seems too long to contemplate, here are my top classic holiday film picks for your viewing pleasure:
  • The Bishop's Wife (1947)—an absolute favorite, expertly acted and directed, with an outstanding supporting cast.
  • The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942)—Bette Davis shows her softer side, and Monty Woolley gives his signature performance as the irascible title character.
  • Christmas in Connecticut (1945)—lighthearted fun with a great cast of characters.
  • Holiday Inn/White Christmas (1942/1954)—holiday essentials for song and dance fans.
  • Auntie Mame (1958)—Rosalind Russell's definitive portrayal of the unconventional aunt with unbounded love and affection for all those she holds dear.
  • Come to the Stable (1949)—A movie from another time, but timeless nonetheless; a gentle story that just might surprise you by becoming one of your holiday favorites.

seasonal christmas movies

Let the season begin!