Holiday Yum

Carol the Bells, Piano Guy style

In checking out some online sheet music for the 6th grade cellist in our family, I ran across the clip below that I wanted to share with you today.  I love this guy’s enthusiasm, as well as his playing!  (Of course, our young cellist pointed out that winter weather is very bad for a string instrument, but there’s no denying that the effect is very seasonal!).

art by Ellen M. Gregg

art by Ellen M. Gregg

 

And if you’d like to enjoy even more holiday cheer, Ellen M. Gregg is baking delectable Old-Fashioned Buttermilk Sugar Cookies over at her blog today (and she’ll be telling us about Bulldog Punch, too!).

Mmm…I can smell those cookies from here….

 

What activity or food is important to you and your family this time of year?  I’d love to hear from you.

Until next time,

Kathy

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Holiday Yum! Versatile Butter-Spritz Cookies

art by Ellen M. Gregg

Welcome to the next installment of Holiday Yum, our Holiday recipe blog hop series!  For the entire schedule, click here.

Today, I have a classic recipe from my childhood: butter spritz cookies.  I make it every year.  It only requires a few standard ingredients, and it can give you an assortment of different-looking cookie styles.

Here’s my copy, complete with vanilla extract stains and notations over the years:

 But now I have a more tech-y twist on recipe-reading.  Can I just say that I love the early Christmas gift my hubby and I gave each other this year?

I can load my recipes right on this baby! No more stains and crumbs. (although I did have to wipe smudges from the screen afterward, LOL)

Okay, back to the task at hand.  Here are the ingredients you’ll need for the basic butter cookie dough:

Preheat the oven and set out the butter, margarine and egg.  Then go do something else for a while.  Put your feet up; you are about to perform cookie awesomeness, and you deserve it.

When the butter/margarine sticks are soft, dump them into the mixer bowl with the sugar.

Cream together (on my mixer, that’s about a “4” speed), scraping the sides occasionally with a rubber spatula.  You’ll be tempted to stop when it looks like this:

But keep going, until it looks like this:

I know, big difference, right?

While the butter and sugar are working their magic in the mixer, you’re going to do a little sifting of the dry ingredients.  Some folks say you don’t need to sift flour before using.  Personally, I’m a big fan of sifting.  When I was a kid helping out in the kitchen, I got such a kick out of using the sifter that I would sift each batch twice.  It’s a great activity for the kids to help out with – if you don’t mind a cloud of flour in your kitchen.

Yep, I have the little crank-style sifter. The knob fell off the handle ages ago.

See how nicely it turns out? Now I know the baking powder is incorporated.

Next, you’re going to separate two egg yolks.  For tips on separating eggs (with pics), check out my Spiced Pecans post (except this time we’re keeping the yolk, not the white).

Aren’t they just perfect little things?

Add the yolks and vanilla to the creamed butter/sugar mixture:

And once that’s nice and blended together, add the sifted flour/baking powder mixture, a little at a time.  Keep scraping – that flour gets everywhere.

When everything is incorporated, the dough will be fairly stiff, like this:

Now it’s time for the fun part.  This recipe is designed to stand up to a cookie press, so it’s time to load it up!

If you’ve been reluctant to use a cookie press, no worries.  There’s a little bit of a learning curve involved, but it’s a fast way to make a lot of cookies.  Quicker than roll-out and drop-style, once you’re in the “pressing zone.”  Growing up, my mom was seriously into speed – she had to be, with the huge neighborhood demand at Christmastime.  For more on our holiday tradition, check out my earlier blog post: Butterscotch Haystacks, and a story.

About cookie presses:

There are two styles: hand-powered (with a plunger you adjust yourself in order to push the dough through) and electric-powered (battery or corded).  Presses come with standard tips and plates for creating stamped designs, such as trees, flowers, stars, and so on.  When using the tips, you hold the press parallel to the cookie sheet, and for the plates, you hold it upright, like this:

There’s a bit of a press-release-lift motion involved, but once you get the hang of what works for you (I count to myself), it’s easy.

**Note: while you’re working with the cookie press, make sure you cover the rest of the bowl of dough with a damp towel, to keep it from drying out.

What I love about this butter cookie dough is that it’s so adaptable.  In experimenting over the years with different variations, my mom came up with some really nice ones, including the runaway favorite that I’m going to share with you today: chocolate pillows, also known as candy bar cushions.

Yes, I had to take a bite of this in order to show you the inside. Oh, the sacrifices I make.

Once you’ve loaded up your cookie press with butter cookie dough, you’ll need to put on this plate:

Hold the press parallel to the cookie sheet, with the wavy side of the plate design on top, the way it is in the picture.  Then press out a ribbon of dough, so it looks like this:

It’s fine if it isn’t perfectly straight.

Then you’ll want to cut some chocolate squares:

Darn! Broke one. My options: a) cobble the pieces together (it will be covered up, anyway, b) eat it, or c) let your kid eat it.

Place the squares on the ribbon of dough, spaced about an inch and a half apart, but I’ve never been exact about this.  Then apply another ribbon of dough over top.  Use a knife to cut the cookies apart before baking, like this:

See that imperfect top on the cookie? Still yummy!

I like to put sprinkles on top, but you don’t have to – there’s plenty of sweetness in this cookie.  But it’s pretty.

These will take a little longer to bake because of their thickness.  Start at 12 minutes, and keep checking at 2-minute intervals, until they look like this:

Just a little golden; not too much.

These are so good, you’ll want someone standing guard over them:

Step AWAY from the cookies, and no one will get hurt.

Here are other variations of the dough that I made today.  Let me know if you want instructions for the others.  I took pics while making those, too, but this post is getting too long!

Have you tried a cookie press for your recipes?  What’s your favorite cookie?  I’d love to hear from you!

Happy Holidays,

Kathy

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Holiday Yums: Natalie’s cookies, and tree decorating!

art by Ellen M. Gregg

Welcome to our Holiday Yum blog hop recipe series!  Today, blogger humorist (and one of my fab gal pals) Natalie Hartford treats us to a personal and hilarious take on French Lace Cookies, so you’ll want to check it out!

But while you’re here, I’d like to share a little holiday analogy with you, re-posted from last year:

 

 

It’s that time of year again, when we – or someone we know and love to mock – engages in the

Putting-Up-The-Dang-Tree Ritual

If we’re talking about a live tree, it’s even more involved.

Have you ever considered how similar the writing process is to putting up a Christmas tree?  No?  Well, let’s take a look.

Many of the parallels below bring to mind some valuable tips on structure from Kristen Lamb, Jedi Master of all things writing, so I’ll be including them as we go:

1. Picking out the tree

This part probably causes the most agony for my poor family, because I tend to be very picky.  I want to see nearly all of the trees of that size, which involves pulling off the string they’ve been wrapped in, shaking it out, someone holding it and twirling it around while the others check for holes, gaps, goofy branches, dying needles, and so on.  Sometimes we even switch twirlers.  It’s an eye-rolling-OMG-Mom-wants-to-see-ANOTHER-tree tradition for us.

The interesting thing about the process is that the person doing the twirling doesn’t necessarily see the flaws.  Since one’s arm is only so long, the holder is just too close.  A little distance is key.

Writing: when “picking out” our first ideas for a book, it’s important to “give it a twirl,” e.g., putting it into a concise, one-line pitch for someone else to look at.  They can check for problems with clarity, logic, conflict, or motivation that we might have missed.  Kristen Lamb refers to this early stage as the “seed idea” or “log-line” and she makes clear how absolutely essential it is to get this right before we go any further.  Check out her post, Structure part 5: Keeping Focused and Nailing the Pitch – Understand your “seed idea.”

I’m not leaving this K of C parking lot without a good log-line, so stop whining!

Oops, sorry – got carried away.

 

2. Making a “fresh cut”

Once a tree is cut in the forest/farm, it tries to heal over the wound in order to avoid more moisture loss.  When we buy a cut tree, the first thing the tree guy does is rev up the chain saw (and I keep an eye on my boys, who are fascinated by loud guy-machinery) and make a fresh cut to the stump.  This will enable the tree to drink water during the time we have it in the house, which could be as long as several weeks.

Writing: sometimes we writers “seal up,” don’t we?  We just can’t get started, or can’t produce what we imagined when we came up with our initial idea.  Time for a fresh cut – a new angle to view things from, a brainstorming session with a writing partner, or maybe some – gasp! – cuts.

 

3. Giving it water and stability

After that fresh cut, our tree is going to start drinking water – lots of it.  It’s also going to need a sturdy tree stand to keep it from toppling over.  The tree has to be firmly in its base before we can start the fun parts – stringing lights and decorating.  Otherwise, the cat/dog/ferret/child is going to bring it down quicker than a Kardashian marriage.  (Or, if we catch it before it topples, we have to tether it to the wall and/or ceiling.  The tree, not the Kardashians, that is.  Either way, it isn’t pretty).

Writing: whether we’re plotters (those who like to lay out the plot ahead of time and write from a detailed outline) or pantsers (those who like to write “by the seat of the pants” without a lot of pre-planning) all of us want to jump in early, and write our favorite bits of description, dialogue, or what have you.  But that would be like trying to put tinsel on the tree while it’s leaning against the wall, and then trying to move the whole mess onto the tree stand later.  We absolutely have to have the structure in place first.

Put down the garland, lady, and no one will get hurt.

Kristen Lamb has a lot to say on this one.  Check out her post, Anatomy of a Best-Selling Novel: Structure Matters, for more on why you need to start with the basics of your story.

 

4. Letting it settle

After the tree is in its stand, the branches are still upright and close to the trunk (and who can blame them, after being twined, shipped and stored for weeks on end).  It doesn’t look like the classic spread-branch tree shape yet.  We wouldn’t even be able to put ornaments on there.  We need to give it time to respond to water and warmth, and then the tree will “open” its branches.

Writing: our creative muse has to “settle” too.  If we only write a few scenes and start editing them (I’m so guilty of this), we’re not giving ourselves the time we need to spread our branches, so to speak, and reveal the spaces where we can really make our writing shine.  This post of Kristen’s really resonated with me:  Editing: Are You Butchering Your Creativity?

 

 

5. Stringing the lights

before putting on the ornaments.  It’s nearly impossible to do after all the ornaments are in place.  We also have to be sure to check first for loose bulbs and frayed wires, because if there’s a problem later, it’s really hard to undo.

Writing: Our characters are like the lights on the Christmas tree.  They have to be first, because they drive the story.  Their motives, fears, goals, and so on, have to be understood before we know where the story is going.  The antagonist in particular is the linchpin, as Kristen explains in: Antagonists: the Alpha and Omega of the Story.   Having only a hazy idea of our characters before we start plotting and writing is like not checking the light strands first for defects before putting them on the tree: if there’s a problem later, we’ll have a lot of disassembling to do.

Where’s the duct tape?

 

6. The ornaments: memories, and breakage

Ah, now we’re getting to the fun part: unpacking the beloved ornaments that will make our tree special.  Those preschooler crafts from long ago: toilet-paper-roll-Santas, popsicle-reindeer-antlers.  And then there’s the delicate glass snowflake our aunt gave us, and the “Baby’s First Christmas” ornament from proud grandparents.

Inevitably, we’ll find a few broken ones, weakened from attic heat and years of handling.  Depending on their sentimental value, we’ll either keep them in the bottom of the box, or throw them out.

Writing: we are each rich in memories and experiences to draw from in our writing, ideas carefully stored for just the right time.  However, there will be some that won’t work.  Perhaps they are too gimmick-y, or what Kristen terms a “bright idea fairy” – it sounds cool, but it’s a distraction and gets in the way of the story.

 

7. And, finally, the tree-topper

 

Whether we prefer a star or an angel (or Yoda, at right), the tree is not complete without something on top.  And of course we always put that on last.

Writing: editing is the angel on the tree.  Without thorough, careful edits, our work is incomplete.

 

So what do you think?  Do you see other parallels in this tree/writing analogy?

If you’re a writer, and are not already familiar with Kristen Lamb, head over to her site.  It’s a fun, rich resource for writers, and she’s wonderfully supportive of us peeps.

However you celebrate the holidays, enjoy!

Until next time,

Kathy

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Next Holiday Yum Stop – Latkes!

 

art by Ellen M. Gregg

Time for our next recipe on the Holiday Yum blog hop!

Check out fab blogger, mom, and Kosher foodie Estee Lavitt and her mouth-watering recipe for Chanukah Baked Latkes.  Yep, now you can have your latkes and bake them, too!  Why wait for Chanukah?  I just have to try these…

Looking for gifts for those 8 nights of Chanukah?  Here’s a small gift idea, from Ellen DeGeneres.  (Wait, I’ve been using man pens all these years?!)

 

Bic Pens for Women – YouTube.

Until next time,

Kathy

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Nineteenth century Winter Holiday – Sledding

For those of you already looking at snow on the ground, or envious of those who have the white stuff, this one’s for you.

Folks in the 19th century had a lot of fun sledding, and doing other winter sports, too.  (Click here for last year’s post on 19thc Ice-Skating in Central Park).

Winter Sports – Coasting in the Country by Granville Perkins, from Harper’s Weekly. February 17,1877

Here’s an excerpt from a January 12, 1896 article in The New York Times that expounds upon the delights of “coasting”:

Love that “manly joy.”  But just in case “blood and vital spirits” aren’t enough to sustain you after a prolonged day of sledding, here’s a remedy:

Advertisement, Dr. Kilmer’s Indian Cough Cure Consumption Oil. Image via NIH, U.S. National Library of Medicine.

Considering it contained “10 percent pure grain alcohol,” you wouldn’t care if you had a cough anymore.

But maybe you’d prefer an indoor activity?  If so, I have the perfect one for you!  Today, in a continuation of our Holiday Yum recipe series, writer Jenny Hansen is posting about her legendary Almond Roca recipe.  She has a fun story to go along with it, too, so check it out!

art by Ellen M. Gregg

Do you have a favorite winter activity?  I’d love to hear from you!

Until next time,

Kathy

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Cyber Monday for Mystery Lovers

Here’s a re-post from last year’s Cyber Monday, with an addition on the end.  Happy Shopping!

Welcome! If you’re reading this, then the ‘net hasn’t yet crashed from the hordes of internet shoppers.

Now that the turkey-induced coma has worn off, most folks are pulling out their wallets and trying to figure out what to get that special someone for the holidays.  I’m here to remind you about the mystery lovers in your life – oh, yes, they are out there.  But what to get?  What says “I appreciate your odd-but-adorable fascination with murder and mayhem”?

You can start with an earlier post of mine, You Know You’re a Mystery Fan If…, for a few suggestions, such as the “Serial Killer Cleaver Mirror,” or the “Brass Knuckles Meat Tenderizer.”  However, let’s expand the selection a bit.

Janet Rudolph’s Mystery Fanfare blog has several wonderful suggestions, including:

The Crime Scene Scarf, great for those chilly nights spent stooping over the latest victim.

Black Hand Gun Soap; now you can “stick ’em up” in the shower.  Okay, I see you all snickering over there.  I run a clean blog. 😉

 

Red Herring Games’ Murder Mystery Games blog has additional intriguing ideas, such as:

The “Dead Write” Sticky Note Pad; the recipients of her notes will “get the message.”

Gun-shaped Salt and Pepper Shakers.  Now that’s adding some spice to a meal.

Here are some other finds:

For the crafty mystery fan, there’s the Tape Gun:

 

 

Gun Cuff-links:

 

from kitschshop.com

 

The oh-so-fashionable Weapon Necktie:

 

 

 

And, finally, there’s the Sherlock Holmes Quotable Thong, from CafePress.com.  The Great Detective says:  “You see, but you do not observe.”  Strategic placement, Mr. Holmes.

 

not sure why “Made in the USA” is so prominent here…

 

So, are you braving Cyber Monday today?  See anything here that appeals to you?

Also today…

art by Ellen M. Gregg

 

It’s Ellen M. Gregg’s turn at Holiday Yum!  Check out her oh-so-decadent The Chocolatiest Chocolate Cake Evah.  I love her story about how the recipe evolved over time, from the Depression-era to the present.  And, oh my goodness, the ganache topping looks crazy-good.  I have to try this.  Thanks, Ellen!

 

 

See you later, and hold onto those credit cards!

Kathy

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Holiday Yum: Spiced Pecans

art by Ellen M. Gregg

Welcome to our Holiday Yum series!  From November 17th to December 31st, a group of us bloggers will be posting our favorite holiday recipes for you to try out and enjoy.  We’ll have everything from cookies and candy and cakes to appetizers and roasts and mocktails!  For the full schedule so far, click on the Holiday Yum page tab.  As I get the hyperlinks to each post, I’ll insert them on that page.

 

Jenny Hansen started us off on Saturday with her post, A Gluten-Free Thanksgiving Made Easy, which includes terrific tips on adapting traditional recipes to make them gluten-free, along with a warning about sneaky places where gluten can lurk!  I have to say, I never even heard of cranberry fluff before.

Today, I’ll be sharing one of my favorite holiday appetizers: spiced pecans.  Every Thanksgiving, I bring them to my sis-in-law’s house for us to snack on as we all pitch in on the meal preparations, and I make more of them later in December to add to my Christmas cookie gift tins.  It’s just a few ingredients to toss together, and the cinnamon-y aroma fills the house while it’s baking.  A win-win!

Spiced Pecans 

Prep time: 15 minutes

Baking time: 45 minutes

photo by K.B. Owen

Ingredients:

1 egg white

1 tbsp cold water

1 pound of shelled pecan halves

1 cup sugar

1 tsp salt

1tbsp cinnamon

 

Directions:

Preheat oven to 275 degress Fahrenheit.  (That’s not a misprint: it’s a low-heat oven)

photo by K.B. Owen

Line a cookie sheet (the kind with a rim around it, also known as a jelly roll pan) with parchment paper.  This is an important step, because the coating for the pecans is sticky and even a non-stick surface will give you a hard time.

 

 

You’ll need two mixing bowls: one for the wet ingredients, and one for the dry.  If one bowl is larger, mix the dry ingredients in that one.

In the “dry” bowl, mix the sugar, salt, and cinnamon, and set aside.

Before we move on to the “wet” bowl, here’s a trick for separating egg yolks and whites:  crack the egg, then hold it on the vertical over a bowl as you detach the top.  Just let the white drip into the bowl, while cradling the yolk in the bottom half of the shell.  To get the rest of the white, “pour” the egg yolk back and forth between the top and bottom halves of the shell, allowing the remaining white to slosh over into the bowl.  Here’s the picture I tried to get, LOL:

Yep, it’s really hard to separate an egg AND take a photo of it at the same time. I think the camera’s a little sticky now.

Beat the egg white and water with a fork until frothy.

REALLY frothy.

Stir in the pecans and coat them well with the egg mixture.  They should like nice and shiny-slimy, like this:

It’s a good thing. Trust me. 😉

Dump the wet pecans in the sugar-cinnamon-salt mixture, and toss it all together until well coated.

Yummy cinnamon-sugar decadence.

Spread the mixture in a single layer (or as close as you can get) on the parchment-paper-covered cookie sheet.

Drooling yet?

Bake for 15 minutes, then pull them out and turn/stir them in the pan, re-spreading them in a single layer.  This part’s a little awkward, because the paper slides around a bit.

They’ll look kind of gooey the first time you stir them, and that’s fine.

Bake for another 15 minutes, then stir/re-spread again.

Bake for a final 15 minutes, then remove from the oven.  Let cool completely before storing – if they last that long!  😉  They should keep for a week or more.

Here they are, all prettied up.

Do you have a favorite recipe you’d like to share?  What food are you looking forward to this Thanksgiving?  Drop me a line in the comments – I’d love to hear from you!

Next recipe, Monday Nov 26th:  Ellen Gregg’s The Chocolatiest Chocolate Cake Evah (with lemonade!)

Wishing you and your family and Happy Thanksgiving, and safe travels.

Kathy

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