Sunday, December 9, 2012

Welcome Christmas with Friends at a Holiday Brunch

As "Monica Geller" from friends proclaimed in happy exhaustion, "I am always the hostess!"  And, indeed nothing makes me happier than a party at our home with my husband cooking up something wonderful!  We love hosting a Christmas Ladies Brunch & Gift Exchange with my best girlfriends on an early Saturday in December. This year's event was especially pretty!

 I had 14 guests + 2 precious little girls.  Tables were set with our Spode Christmas Tree that was both collected over many years and purchased at a smokin' deal for 87.5% off after a huge Colorado blizzard crippled the retail season - still one of my favorite shopping memories!  Each place setting had a small mercury glass votive that I used as a vases holding fresh evergreen and fragrant Colorado carnations.  Each hanging vase was tied with a red gingham ribbon & a place card.  These became the party favor - same as the year before - so that everyone can have a little mercury glass collection.

 Our dining table is set with a favorite tablecloth from Crate & Barrel (never seen again - gosh that store is so hit or miss)  Our red glasses are from Colonial Williamsburg, called "shrub glasses".  Perfect for water or tea - or anything else. 
 The second table in the kitchen was set using a vintage 1970's tablecloth that belonged to my Mom.  The colors & poinsettia pattern work perfectly with the china.  Again, the star votive candles were a Crate & Barrel gift from my god-mother.  It's just as fancy as the dining room and just as pretty!
 The Kid's Table doesn't get any cuter than this! Mini table with Christmas Pyramid and Colonial Williamsburg child's tea set (filled with milk & sugar cubes too!) Each girl received an angel ornament with her place card. They spun that pyramid to death, and felt so grown up at a "Big Girls Party"!
 Our family room Christmas tree is filled - and yes, this took hours!  But, everyone enjoys it - especially us - filled with ornaments from our childhood, and places we have traveled to.  Ornaments from far-away places make a great collectable and invoke wonderful memories.  I think there are at least 8 Eiffel Towers on that tree, plus lots from Colonial Williamsburg!  And, we will always remember our day trip to San Antonio TX with the darling little clay angel we found.
 Dessert after brunch?  Absolutely!  This fabulous cheesecake with fresh berries was made by friend Lindsey of 5280 Cakes.  It was perfect with another cup of hot coffee & lots of conversation. 
Tiny nested Santas are a favorite of our Santa Collection.  They wish you a Merry Christmas - as do I!

Thursday, December 1, 2011

My contribution to the Great Food Blogger Cookie Swap

It is such a treat to be involved in the Great Food Blogger Cookie Swap this year. As a relatively new blogger, I am happy to contribute to this neat "pen pal" idea. I feel like I am lucky to be "picked" and really wanted to give it my all. Thursday, it is snowing to beat the band. Thus, the perfect day to stay home & bake.

Of course, I would bake my divine Sugar Cookies! Right? A no-brainer! My chef-hubbie knew this was the perfection contribution! They are delish - and so pretty too! But, according to the rules, you can't bake something you've already blogged about. Drat. So, dear reader, please click here & make them for yourself!

My Mom & her best friend Barbara had a cookie catering business back in the early 1980's... called "The Cookie Cart". They made 15 different varieties of cookies and 4 of the most delicious quick breads ever eaten! But, it was a labor of love. They were terribly under-priced (their cookie trays started at $5.00 for 3 dozen!) So, the family gained weight eating "rejects", and the westie-dog got diabetes as a result of eating treats off the floor.

I made one of my favorites from the old Cookie Cart days... Caramel Lace. This is the one recipe my Mom never shared. Why? It's pretty scientific. The few times she did share it, the recipient complained that it didn't work. Well, that's enough to make you not want to give it out... no matter how many "Oh, my... How delicious!" comments you get.

Also, be warned that this qualifies as a "Semi-Homemade" recipe. For me, that means you can make lots and lots! Caramel Lace freezes beautifully, and folks can't eat just one! They are buttery and covered in pecans... how much better can it get?

Caramel Lace Cookies:
from the cookbook of Genie Sherman, The Cookie Cart, circa 1980
  • Graham Crackers - preferably the cinnamon-sugar variety. They need to break perfectly, and I find the Albertson's Brand work best. The plain ones are also good. I've tried Keebler, and they don't break as well. Look for boxes that aren't dented. The better condition the box, the less broken the crackers.
  • 1 stick butter - I used "salted" butter, but either works great. Keep it in the fridge until you are ready to put it in the sauce pan.
  • 1 stick oleo - I used Imperial or Blue Bonnet. Again, keep it in the fridge.
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • Chopped pecans

Method:

Preheat your oven to 375 degrees.

Line a 1/2 sheet pan with a silicon Silpat or Parchment Paper. Break graham crackers into rectangles. Trim with paring knife, if necessary. Fill the pan to the maximum capacity - about 48 crackers. If possible, prep as many pans as you have now, so that you can make batch after batch.


In a medium saucepan on high heat, melt a stick of butter and a stick of oleo/margarine. When they are almost completed melted, add 1 cup sugar and stir with a metal or wooden slotted spoon until it begin to boil.


Reduce your heat to medium-high, set your timer for 3 minutes, and stir mixture continuously. The mixture will bubble, mine always becomes "marshmellow-y" and very glossy.

It will double in size. Don't stop stirring.



When the chime sounds, take the butter/sugar mixture off the burner and pour over the graham crackers, edge to edge.

Using a silicon spatula, scrape the pan of all it's goodness and pour over crackers. Spread the mixture evenly, edge to edge. Work quickly!



Add chopped pecans over the mixture to cover it as much as you'd like. I use a fabulous KitchenAid pink chopper that works like a charm. (Thank you Aunt Mary Ann!!)



I like mine pretty finely chopped. Use a metal spatula to press the nuts and butter into the crackers firmly.






Put pan in pre-heated oven for 9-11 minutes. Check them at 9 minutes. If they are still pale at 11 minutes, add another minute or two. You want them caramel-colored, with the butter mixture penetrating the cracker entirely.







Remove from oven and run a knife blade along the edge of the pan. Let cool for 5 minutes or so. Using a large metal spatula, remove crackers from the pan in large sections, and allow to cool on parchment paper or non-stick cooling racks. Don't touch them until they are cool, or you will disturb the caramel & it will come right off. When totally cool, break into rectangles.









They are addictive (and all I've eaten today!) Enjoy them - make lots & lots! It's quick & easy! If one batch doesn't work, try another. Adjust your timing, and try again. Once you get it right, you'll get it right over and over! Just don't tell me if you don't like the recipe. Mom heard it over & over. Those complainers wanted the cookies - and lots of them! They just didn't want to make them!

It's true... No one can eat just one!

Now, here are the warnings:
  • Follow the directions. 3 minutes means "set the timer and take it off the burner when the buzzer sounds". Stir means "Stir it like it's your job!"
  • Feel free to adjust! If your oven is convection, bake at 350* instead of 375*. If 11 minutes isn't enough, add another minute or two. If 11 minutes turned your cookies dark brown, bake them 9 minutes instead.
  • Pre-chop your Pecans. Keep your butter & oleo in the fridge until you are ready to put it in the sauce pan.
  • Keep your oven on.
  • Set your mise-en-place up prior. Get your cookie pans lined with silpats or parchment paper. Set several cookie pans up - and use the same sauce pan for butter & sugar melting over & over again.
  • It's easier to work with 2 people... and faster. However, I baked 7 batches by myself and it didn't take that long!

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

So good & easy, you'll make it again & again!

I've been baking like a crazy woman! Last week felt like a marathon of baking! In 5 days of Thanksgiving (in Texas, in 2 relatives homes - thanks to them for the use!)I made this recipe 4 times!
Egg Nog Pound Cake: (from Southern Living, November 2011)
This is easy-peasy and so delicious! Kids loved it - especially with ice cream! Great for breakfast too. Fits into a loaf pan or one of those pretty seasonal pans from NordicWare! Just use a non-stick cooking spray, even on a fancy pan. It releases easily!

Ingredients

  • 1 (16-oz.) package pound cake mix
  • 1 1/4 cups eggnog
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Preparation

  • 1. Preheat oven to 350°. Beat all ingredients together at low speed with an electric mixer until blended. Increase speed to medium, and beat 2 minutes. Pour into a lightly greased 9- x 5-inch loaf pan.
  • 2. Bake at 350° for 1 hour to 1 hour and 5 minutes or until a long wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool in pan on a wire rack 10 minutes. Remove from pan to wire rack, and cool completely (about 1 hour).

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Social Media: A Guide to Self-Broadcasting 101

So, you want to tweet" your way to success! You want to be active on Facebook, and reconnect with everyone you've liked & known over the years. And, the idea of YouTube is irresistible! Who doesn't want to see themselves on TV?! Basically, with the insurgence of Social Media platforms, you can self-broadcast into Justin Bieber-like fame! You can actually see your name in lights - or at least, your name in the first 3 Google Search Results! Voila... you're famous!

Whoa! If only it were that easy! Just like the saying goes "Garbage in, Garbage out"; and you certainly don't want to broadcast your garbage. There are a world of advice columns helping you to avoid Social Media faux pas, or worse, losing your job over a poorly worded/poorly timed Tweet. There are a million ways to tell the world what you are doing - a lot of them fun, interesting, and creative. And, an equal amount embarrassing, rude, and just plain stupid. I've seen both sides of this coin, and the Social Media so-called experts make as many mistakes (or more!) as anyone else.

The Golden Rule is: Never say (post, tweet, or photograph) anything on Social Media that you would be embarrassed to show your Mother; you'd gulp to share with your Pastor, Priest, or Rabbi; or a Judge would question in a Court of Law. Don't worry - it will come back to haunt you. Think of social media as a bell that cannot be un-rung. If a post causes you to pause, spend a moment (minute, hour, day or two) thinking about possible waves and repercussions it may cause, perhaps it might be best not to post that at all.

When addressing an adverse or negative situation, a positive approach can prove to be the most effective method! It can be most pro-active to directly (and privately) contact the company or person directly related to the negative experience with a email or phone call, and provide specific details that a "tweet" just won't hold. Folks are much more apt to remedy a problem privately and directly than if you first broadcast it to the universe. And, you look better for holding your cards closely and solving the problem out of the spotlight. Remember, there's no situation worthy of broadcast whining and complaining - unless nothing is resolved and no reasonable remedy can be offered. Then, chances are, others feel the same way - and we all know that misery loves company.

First, here's how to look like a complete idiot using Social Media:
  • Pick a Fight
  • Whine publicly on a friend's Facebook wall or Twitter
  • Air your Company's "dirty laundry"
  • Post about a bad experience (without first contacting the offending company or person privately)
  • Ask for help, recommendations, or advice, but never thank those who post answers or offer help.
  • Self-promote over and over and over....
  • Publicly, ask someone else to do your work for you.
  • Give a sneak peek to a new book/movie/blog, and then, never publish it.
  • Use social media as a full replacement for a personal conversation or a telephone, email or hand-written note.
The "Emily Post" guide to Etiquette using Social Media has not been published yet, but the principles for manners and good etiquette still apply universally. No, I'm not saying that you can't be clever, funny, or cute. Just please be kind, friendly, and grateful to others who further your message. A quick Thank You goes a long way in this fast-paced environment. You can't say it too often! There's no substitute for friendliness, even when trying to resolve a problem.

A good guideline to "tweeting" or posting on line: For every 10 posts, self-promote (or hard sell) only 2 or 3 times. What will you say the other 7-8 times? Be helpful! Suggest another business or promote someone else. Retweet someone else's thoughts, and how you reacted to it in a positive way. Give credit where credit is due! Thank someone for being astute or helpful. Say "what you are doing" not to self-promote, but to promote an activity, business, or idea.

A great old Nordstrom philosophy I learned working for the company was "Over Promise - Under Deliver". This simply means: Don't promise an unreasonable, limited time-frame delivery date that will be impossible and expensive to meet. Allow more time to your promised delivery date, and then beat it! Thereby, making the customer happy. This concept is a great life lesson. I will try my best to not post or promote some idea or promise that I cannot fulfill.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Lead me not into Temptation; I can find it all by myself!

Old habits die hard (ain't it the truth!) and new ones take 30 days to make. So, let's call this "not shopping for a year" promise a work in progress...

Day 6: Hurray! My company and I are being interviewed this morning on TV! Many check lists are going off at once... Office cleaned & straight? Thanks Marla & Patty! Props for showing off Padibbles in perfection? All collected and loaded in the car the night before? I wanted to make cupcakes to show off our darling "Hey Cupcake!" series - and my sweet hubbie didn't get the message in time. So, quick, stop off at a good bakery (or Whole Foods) to get pretty ones for the shoot! And, because I'm so nervous, I stopped at another local gourmet market to get another cupcake option.

Should have avoided this place like the plague!

I walk in the door, and the first sign I see says "75% off!" and it's all this really cute and great Christmas stuff - paper napkins, some decorations, etc. And, at "pennies on the dollar" it's so tempting. Really, what could it hurt? Right? So, I grab a couple without even thinking about it (this is my problem!!!) and head to the cashier.

And, this action never crosses my mind the rest of the day. After all, I've done this most of my life. Knee-jerk, impulse purchases are meant to be just that easy. I didn't even remember buying them, or the $6 extra dollars I had spent. Or, at least I didn't until I got home that night, and pulled the package out of my car to bring inside the house (and show my husband). Gulp...

But, it's only $6 bucks, right? Wrong!

My husband is not furious. Worse. He is disappointed. He looks at me with a turned down mouth and disappointment in his eyes. My heart sinks. Not only was this a stupid purchase, it was dumb. It was wasteful. Aren't I part owner of a paper napkin company? It was foolish! If I spent an extra $6 a day, that's $42 a week, or $180 a month, and $2,190.00 a year!!

The next time I think "It's only $6. What could it hurt?"... the answer is MORE THAN YOU KNOW! It all adds up! And, it adds up fast! Really fast!

So, I've screwed up and gave it 100% effort. Since then, I'm back on the wagon. I'm trying to head to Atlanta (for me, Shopping Capital of the USA) to a gift show. My checkbook is safely at home, and I've taken enough money to buy meals and parking, and that's it.

And, just to show you I'm not spending, I was called for buying Girl Scout Cookies, and politely declined. Now, if that's not a good thing, I don't know what is.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

A Year Without Spending ...

Yesterday, I was on Facebook, looking at Sunset Magazine.

Sunset asked the question: " What are your New Years resolutions for 2011?" And, I responded with "To not spend any discretionary money on clothes, make up, shoes, home decor, tabletop, or gifts! To live with and use what I have!" Within minutes, 4 people "liked" or agreed with my answer.

Seems like a lofty, pie-in-the-sky, would-if-I-could promise that could be near-impossible to keep. Really?? 365 whole days of not shopping? WHY? And, considering that my family calls me "Granny Good-wish" and "Shops-with-a-Fist", what's going on?

I've worked in the gift industry since I was 16, and have been surrounded by beautiful new things all those year - & surrounded at a pretty nice discount! From home decor, to tabletop, my family & friends have enjoyed the ability to declare "this is what I want" (loudly or with subtlety) and I have delighted in knowing what to give them! It has felt like a little added bonus, like being able to grant them a wish, or make a dream come true.

I love giving gifts! As a dear friend who has known me all my life once explained, giving gifts is my "love language". I'm thrilled to be able to give someone the item of their desire, to add to their collection, to beautify their home. In my home, I feel surrounded by the beautiful and thoughtful gifts my friends & family have generously given to me and my husband over the years. The chair, the vase, the artwork, the china, even the silver tomato server instantly floods my memory with sweet thoughts of the person who gave it to me. And, I have believed that the reverse was true; that my friends felt the same about the gifts I gave them... until recently, when I found out not everyone thinks this way.

However, this decision is primarily an economic one! About 2 years ago, I was laid off. And, during that financially difficult time, my husband asked that I "limit" shopping and gift giving. This was pretty easy, because I could still "shop"... like a little addiction ... and not go "cold turkey". But now, after starting a new company, I have zero income, and thus, zero reasons to shop, period! It is time to "wake up and smell the coffee" - and be responsible.

What does "not shopping" mean?
I will not spend any money in the year 2011 on discretionary purchases; clothing, underwear, make-up, shoes, home accessories, home decor, tabletop, or gifts of any kind. Period! If my mascara gets old or smells bad, I will go without. I will wear out my underwear and socks! I mean "religious", holey, and plain used-up!
I will repair before ever considering replacing! Sewing & mending will be my new standard!
I will learn to give myself a mani-pedi! I will throw parties at home using the pretty things I already have! And, for special gifts for folks, I will give something that I already have, and gift it to them! Nothing can be more special than giving a young teen a piece of jewelry that was yours, or a pretty scarf to a friend that you no longer wear.

You are asking "Well, you didn't say anything about eating out!" You're right... and I'm not eating out lunch this year! At all! I will bring my lunch to work every day (even a beverage!). The only thing I will do is eat out when traveling (out of necessity). That's the line!

I remember some years ago that a woman from NYC was profiled on a network news program because she decided to not spend any money for a solid year on discretionary purchases. This was a revolutionary action! At that time, the economy was pretty darn solid, and it seemed ridiculous for anyone to stop shopping! She even used the same mascara for a year (OK - this is where I draw the line.... that's not safe... just go without!) And, I found another blogger, Angela Barton, who did not spend in 2009! Good for you Angela! http://angelabarton.com/blog/

This is a serious pledge! It's not about carbon footprint, or being a vegetarian, or living a greener way? It's about dollars and
sensibility! Wonder how much money we'll save, and how far we'll be able to keep out of debt!

I'll keep this blog and let you know how it's going. So far, it's January 4th, and $0 has been spent so far. 361 days to go!

Monday, December 6, 2010

300 Christmas Cookies in 3 Days! Whew!


A favorite holiday tradition of mine is baking cookies for friends and family! But, after starting our new company Padibbles, and my sweet Chef hubbie working like crazy at the holidays, you'd think this tradition would be scraped for the season!

The "King of Christmas" (aka: my Chef hubbie) wouldn't have it any other way! So, last week, as soon as he & I arrived home from a long day at work, we baked cookies 3 hours on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday! Why? Well keep reading friend, and you'll see why we held a cookie marathon!

First, you need the perfect sugar cookie recipe!
Your recipe has to produce an easy, fast, dough and a melt-in-your-mouth cookie with no leavening ingredients. (Leavening messes up the cookie's shape as it bakes in the oven.)

Here's my recipe (requested over and over). I take no responsibility for the 5 lbs you will gain!

Cream Cheese Cookies
Courtesy: Williams Sonoma in-store recipe cards, circa 1988
Ingredients:
½ cup butter (4 oz, unsalted, softened/room temperature)
3 oz. pkg cream cheese, softened/room
temperature
½ cup sugar
1 egg yolk
1 tsp. freshly grated/zested orange peel
1 tsp. real vanilla extract
1 ½ cups flour (we like King Arthur A/P for this)
½ tsp salt
These ingredients can easily be doubled or tripled. Beyond that, make multiple batches.
Combine butter & cream cheese; gradually add sugar and beat until light & fluffy. Beat in egg yolk, orange zest, & vanilla. Sift together flour & salt, and blend into cream cheese mixture.
Divide and form dough into 2 rolls (or flat patties for rolling out into sugar cookies). Wrap in plastic wrap and chill at least 1 hour!
Roll out dough on a lightly floured marble board (or stone counter top) to ¼” thickness (pretty thick!) Flour your rolling pin too! Brush off any excess flour with a pastry brush. Dust cookie cutter with flour too. Transfer cut out forms to un-greased cookie sheet (Silpat liners work best! Parchment paper is good too!)
Bake at 375 degrees for 12-15 minutes (we rotate the sheets halfway through cooking) Take out when cookies are a light golden color. If you cool them on a rack, cookies will be more crisp. We cool them on the counter top, and they maintain a little extra softness. (This point is important at high altitude baking!)
And, thus ended our bake-a-thon for Day 1! We made 6 recipes of the dough, resulting in just under 300 cookies of all different shapes & sizes!
Day 2 (or Evening 2 for those counting) began with me dividing the different shapes into piles.
For me, it's easiest to come up with a dipping and decorating strategy for each shape & design. We frost our sugar cookies with “Summer Coating” (also known as Compound Chocolate). You can use buttercream frosting or royal icing too. But, I love how the orange & cream cheese tastes with the chocolate! And, it's pretty darn fast & easy with very professional looking results!
First, melt your Compound Chocolate over simmering water to 120 degrees. Take it off the water, and add in 2 pieces of chocolate, to bring
the temperature down to 105 - 110 degrees. If it is above 120 degree, it's too hot to dip and your chocolate will streak. Hold your cookie by a corner, and only dip it 1/2 to 3/4 way through the chocolate, dragging it through the bowl and shaking it off at the end of the dip/drag.
We melted both white and green chocolate. Remember, these are background colors for the cookies. Don't dip the whole cookie. It's impossible to hold, looks messy, and it's just too much!
Below is an example of my "dip & drag" technique! After the "dip & drag", you gently shake off the excess chocolate.



Each type is grouped together on waxed paper. They are allowed to harden overnight. Thus ends Day 2!
Hurray! Day 3 has arrived! Time to wrap this project up and "git 'er done"! All the cookies charm and personality comes out in the finishing touches!
We start by melting colors! We melt red (1st), yellow (2nd), pink (3rd) and white (last). The order you melt your colors is important! I used parchment paper folded into piping bags for the colors because it gives me the most control! You can also use disposable plastic piping bags or freezer quart bags (and cut off a corner). Don't use sandwich sized plastic bags! They pop open really easily, and leave you a big mess!
First, Red stripes on the stockings! Red swirls and squiggles on the ornaments! Red dots on the trees!

Second, Yellow wings on the doves! Yellow stars atop the Christmas trees. Yellow scarves on snowmen! Yellow halos & wings on angels! Yellow buttons on gingerbread men!
Third, pink scarves on snowmen. Pink swirls on candy! Pink hearts on mittens! Pink accents on angels!
And last, the White! White on top of it all pops all the other colors! White wings on angels! White tinsel on trees!
Good News: if you get a big blob of color (even red) on a cookie, let it harden for 30 minutes, and then using a paring knife, scrape underneath the color and it will "pop" off! Thus, allowing you to save the cookie and redecorate it!
Don't even think of touching these until the next morning (tempting as it is!) Allow the colors to harden overnight!
When I took a bag of these cookies over to a friend's house, she honestly thought I bought them at a local bakery! Best of all, they taste a million times better! Hope you will enjoy your results too! Merry Christmas!