Friday, December 21, 2012

Christmas Cookies with Links

Hi Crushers,
As you may know from an earlier blog posting, Steve and I are using our Advent Calendar to count down to Christmas with #24daysoftogetherness that I saw on Tina's blog, Carrots N Cake. One of the days this past week was "share your favorite Christmas memory". I told Steve about how we all took my sister's Big Bird themed Big Wheels three-wheeler out for a spin in the snow when she was six. We both talked about our favorite gifts (his: VHS Wrestling game, mine: Cabbage Patch Doll), caroling, Christmas Eve church services with candles, and family time.

I forgot to tell him about Christmas cookie baking with Grandma K, Mom, my sister Lisa and I all crammed in my Grandma's kitchen. This was the same home that Mom grew up in, so there were probably 10,000 cookies baked in this kitchen over the years. This is where we learned kitchen time management, how to grease a cookie sheet, the correct size of a dough ball to roll, how to crush pecans and almonds, and above all that you are not allowed to lick the chocolate or sugar off your fingers before you are done! By the time we finished making candies and cookies, we probably had inhaled a cup of powdered sugar each, but it was so much fun!

This year, we all took turns making cookies with Mom and Dad in their kitchen. If I could nominate my mom as a kitchen crush for only one reason, she would win for most organized. Seriously. She organizes us all by what cookies we need to bake, who has the patience to roll out all the dough balls or dip them in chocolate and what ingredients everyone needs to buy. She's like the general of cookie organization. When other people are freaking out on trying to figure out when to put things in the oven so they all come out at the same time, I am not because my mom taught me that one. Virtual High Five, Mom!

We always say that, "We don't need to bake so many cookies this year", and yet we still make 13 different kinds! Here they are with links to the recipes (if I could find them).
1. Scottish Shortbread (we melt chocolate on top of ours)
2. Spritz Cookies
3. Molasses Cookies
4. Grandma M's sugar cookies (It's a secret, but this one is pretty darn close. We double this recipe since they melt in your mouth!)
5. Sugar Cookie cut outs (use the dough recipe from my blog post here)
6. Peanut Butter Balls
7. Ting-a-lings (some people call them chocolate haystacks)
8. Raspberry thumbprints
9. Rosettes (my dad is the pro at these)
10. Peppermint Bark
11.Cherry Chocolate Nougats - sorry all, but I cannot find this recipe online!
12. Pecan Fingers - from one of my favorite bloggers!
13. Chocolate-dipped Angel Macaroons (use the recipe for Angel Macaroons from this post here and if you dip one half in chocolate and sprinkle with some ground almonds it kind of tastes like an Almond Joy).

Please note that all of these recipes are actually handwritten on sheets of paper or down on note cards in careful cursive writing. I am supplying the links to the recipes that are the closest to what we made. Also note, we are cookie crazy, and make most of these as double batches so we all go home with at least 4-5 tins of cookies.

Pfew... That was a lot of cookies! I think I need a glass of milk now.

How about you? What are your favorites? Did we miss any?

UPDATE: Here are photos of all the cookies except the Peppermint Bark.

Steve's Homemade Pizza

For a little while now, we have been using free meal planning printables that I found on The Nest Effect. Tiffany is a very organized gal! It has been helping us plan our meals around nights out, meetings and the holidays. It also helps us organize when to pull things out of the freezer and in making grocery lists.

Last night, Steve was up for making dinner. He has been wanting to make homemade pizza for a while, but we had never seemed to come home from the grocery with pizza dough. Well, thanks to our handy meal organizer, we remembered to buy toppings and thaw out the dough!

Steve's Homemade Pizza:
1 loaf of freezer pizza dough, thawed
1/2 cup of pizza sauce (to taste)
1/2 pound pizza sausage, browned (save the other half for your wife to use in stuffed mushrooms and on her salad for lunch)
18 slices of pepperoni
5 white button mushrooms, sliced
1/2 a large onion, diced
2 cups mozzarella cheese

Knead dough to warm it and make it pliable. Spread dough on a lightly greased, non-stick cookie sheet until it reaches all the edges. While you are working on this, brown the pizza sausage on the stove top. This should take about 5-7 minutes. Spread pizza sauce over the dough. You can add as much or as little as you would like. Just make sure it is even. Sprinkle the browned pizza sausage over the sauce so it is even. You don't need it every where, just evenly spread out. Place the pepperonis over the sausage so they are spaced out. Do the same with the onions and mushrooms. Sprinkle cheese over the entire pizza. You can use whatever other pizza toppings you choose, but these are what we used. Bake in a 425 degree oven for about 20 minutes or until the cheese and crust edges are a golden brown. Enjoy!

Slice and serve!

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Creamy Tomato Pasta and Homemade French Dressing

After seeing too many sitcoms where the wife makes her husband's favorite recipe, which happens to be something his mother always made for him, and the recipe never turning out right, I have learned not to try and top something Steve's mom has made. Food has a lot of feelings attached to it, and that is why I think those recipes never work. That, and it gets a lot of laughs.

My grandma's bread and butter pickles never tasted as good unless you were up north eating them with a view of the lake. My dad's French toast never tastes as good unless it's a Sunday morning before church. My mom's anything never tastes as good as when she makes it and you get to sit and chat in the kitchen while it bakes. Sometimes you just need the original.

Every Thanksgiving and Christmas, Steve's mom makes this cranberry fluff that he loves. He could eat pounds of it and never get tired of the tart treat. When his mom offered me the recipe, I declined. She was shocked. However, I knew I could never make it just the way she did because he loves her and how she makes it. It's something special that they share. Someday I'll ask for it or have Steve ask her for it. It is really good, and you never want a delicious recipe to get lost.

This hasn't stopped us from swapping recipes for other things. Her cherry dessert with the sweet pretzel crust? Oh yeah, I'm making that for Christmas. My cheesy potatoes? I left Thanksgiving dinner with an empty dish. Some recipes are a hit no matter who makes them.

A few nights ago, Steve said, "Hey, you haven't tried one of my mom's recipes in a while." So I grabbed my recipe cards and did a search. Since we have accidentally been doing a meatless Monday for a few weeks now, I thought I would make her homemade French dressing for a side salad to go with our creamy tomato pasta dinner. I'm never using store-bought French dressing again!

Creamy Tomato Pasta
1 box of pasta (pick your favorite shape!)
1 tbsp butter
1 cup chopped mushrooms
1 small zucchini, chopped
1/2 large onion or 1 medium onion
1 clove garlic
1 tsp pepper
1/3 of an 8 oz. block of cream cheese (the low fat kind works fine)
1 shot glassful of white wine (optional)
1 jar of your favorite pasta sauce

Cook pasta in a large pot according to the package. Meanwhile in a medium-sized sauce pan, melt 1 tbsp of butter so that it's liquid, but not bubbling. Saute the zucchini, mushrooms, onions and garlic on medium heat. When they are soft (when the onions are translucent), stir in the cream cheese so it melts. When that has melted, add the pepper and a shot glass-sized splash of white wine and the pepper. 
Keep stirring so that it doesn't scorch on the bottom. No one likes burnt cream cheese.
Mix well and then add at least half if not the whole jar of pasta sauce and stir. You should be able to get that completed and simmering by the time the pasta is done (in 12 minutes).
You can keep this simmering on low.
Drain the pasta and return it to the big pot. Pour the whole sauce mixture over the pasta and toss so it is well coated.

Carol's French Dressing
Super easy!
1 cup salad oil (meaning a light oil like canola oil)
1 cup sugar
1/3 cup vinegar
1 cup ketchup
1 tsp salt
1 tsp celery seed
1 small grated onion

Directions: Combine ingredients and beat until thick. Makes 1 pint. Store in fridge.
Tasty and healthy-ish!

I made 1/3 of this since 1 pint of dressing is a lot for two people and she didn't say how long this lasts. So the only hard thing to measure was the vinegar because I don't have a 1/9 cup. (Who does?!) For the salt and celery seed, I just eye-balled it and it tasted fine. I'm sure the next time we use it, we'll have to stir it up again because the oil will try and separate. That's easy enough, and it's nice to have on hand for a salad. We're keeping it in a plastic jar with a tight lid just in case it should fall off of a shelf in the fridge. There are a lot of Christmas cookies chilling in there right now. More on those later this week!

Monday, December 17, 2012

Blog Day of Silence

I'm not sure who started it, but today is a Blog Day of Silence.

To quote Tina from Carrots N' Cake:
In honor of the memory of lives cut short [the adults and children slain at Sandy Hook Elementary], I’m stepping away from my computer today to celebrate the gift of life and those I love most. I hope you’ll join me in remembering, praying, and being with those you love most.
As the President said, "I can only hope it helps for you to know that you’re not alone in your grief; that our world too has been torn apart; that all across this land of ours, we have wept with you, we’ve pulled our children tight... Newtown - you are not alone". 

Although I'm sure you already have, please say some extra prayers for the children, the families, the community, the rescue workers, the clergy and the reporters who have dealt with this, non-stop, and who will contine to work toward recovery. 

Thank you.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Steak review and our Christmas tree

Good morning Crushers!

Remember last week when I was really excited for our date night at a steak house? No, well you can read about it here. Let's just say I was really looking forward to trying one of the best steak places in the city. I was not disappointed in my steak. I had a great dinner, but I had to wimp out and get a take-home bag. You'll see why in a few photos.

The cool part about the 5 O'Clock Steakhouse is that you feel like you either step back in time or you're instantly transported up north to a supper club. We started out at the bar and ordered a drink. I did get an old fashioned and it was terrific! The hostess explains that you sit and have a drink and your waitress takes your order at the bar. Then she goes and sets up your table.

When we were seated there was a HUGE bowl of salad at the table with a lazy susan filled with different dressings. There was also a relish tray. I almost took a picture of it, but we were really hungry and then... well, it didn't happen. I can tell you that it had a few spicy peppers, sweet peppers, carrots, radishes, olives (black and green) and green onions. I definitely enjoyed the veggies. Our waitress also brought out a warm 1/2 loaf of sour dough bread, which got devoured quickly. It was a nice reminder of our California honeymoon!

The only bummer about steakhouses is that you often have to order everything a la carte. While this was true of this restaurant, I feel like we really got our money's worth. Steve ordered a bowl of French Onion Soup that was amazing (and better than the one I made, but probably because it was not the low-cal version). The soup broth was flavorful and loaded with onions. The croutons and the cheese that was gratinéed over the top was perfectly crisp and bubbly. We also ordered crab stuffed mushrooms because when we get our once-a-year fancy dinner out, we like to splurge on calories and a random appetizer.
These mushrooms were so stuffed with crab and cheese that you couldn't even seem them!
They were very rich and tasty, but I don't know if I would order them again.

On to the steaks, the main event! I ordered a New York Strip Sirloin since it was described as "for the love of the finest". I was served a perfectly "medium" steak with a nice char and a generous portion of mushrooms and au jus (French for "with [its own] juice"). Now, I say steak like it's a regular portion of meat. Ha ha, no. This was the size of a small roast. I'm totally planning on taking the leftovers (I could only eat about 1/3 of the steak) and making them into fajitas later this week.

The whole steak wouldn't fit in the picture. It was HUGE, but so very delicious and flavorful.
The rumor goes that only the chefs know the secret to the perfect char and the seasoning.
Steve ordered Bacon Wrapped Filets which were filet medallions surrounded by bacon and then covered with blue cheese. It also came with a Parmesan sauce. Steve said he could have done without the sauce, but it was a nice way to cut the sharp flavor of the blue cheese. We eat traded bites and declared that we made good choices. The bite I had of Steve's steak was very interesting because it was very tender and yet it had the smokey flavor of bacon infused into it somehow. I'd be very interested in trying to repeat all of these at home.

It was smothered! We both agreed that it could have done with less sauce.
This dinner was a nice kickoff to a fantastic weekend. On Saturday we did some marathon shopping and I got to see the Nutcracker ballet with some of the ladies from church. The dancers did a great job! We ate dinner at Elsa's, which makes fancy sandwiches the size of your face. If you go, I highly suggest a burger or the turkey and avacado club. So good!

Sunday was another Christmas-y day. After church we spent time with my sister-in-law's family making Christmas cards and then we went home to decorate our tree. It was a wonderful weekend of family, food and friends!

Makes you want to sing some carols doesn't it?

Friday, December 7, 2012

Get excited for Steak!

Happy Friday, Crushers!

I am very excited for date night with my husband tonight. We were given a gift card for a supper club in Milwaukee, and we are going to have steak! I don't normally cook steak unless it's on the grill, but I do love eating it. The majority of our diets is composed of white meats like chicken, fish and pork, but for a treat (and some iron), we go for red meat. Whether it is a juicy hamburger, some spicy tacos or a roast, beef is a great choice. Everything in moderation, right?

Wait, you don't know what a supper club is? Check it out on Wikipedia. I think they have a spot-on description of these restaurants. Usually we go to one when we are up north by our cabin, but to have an old school supper club right here in Milwaukee is a treasure!

I can't wait to settle in to the 1950's-60's decor, order a martini or old fashioned (another very Wisconsin drink), snack on the relish tray and wait for my steak. Where are we going to enjoy all this kitsch?! The Five O'Clock Steakhouse "One of America's Best Steakhouses" says Rachel Ray. It has been voted number one in the city so many times, and people on Yelp can't be more enthusiastic. I can't wait! You can believe I'll be taking pictures of my meal!

Until then, have a great weekend!

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Desserts - it never hurts to make a back up

Good morning crushers,

We have a "food fight" going on at work. The idea is that we split our office building into two teams (east side vs. west side) and we play various games and have drawings and things to support a local food bank called Hunger Task Force.
"Hunger Task Force believes that every person has a right to adequate food obtained with dignity. Hunger Task Force works to prevent hunger and malnutrition by providing food to people in need today and by promoting social policies to achieve a hunger free community tomorrow."
Last year, we raised over $14,000 in 10 days! One of the many activities we do to raise money is a bake sale. Hopefully, some of the desserts I made will help. I tried two recipes last night. One is a tried and true recipe and one is brand new.

First: Mint Chocolate Brownies
1 box of chocolate brownie mix (1/2 cup oil, 1/4 cup water, 2 eggs)
1/4 tsp peppermint extract
1/2 - 1 whole bag of chocolate mints (I used Andes Candies) for the topping

Mix the brownies according to the box.
Tip: When cracking eggs, I like to crack them on their sides on a flat hard surface like the counter top because it cracks the egg in a nice line around the whole thing. I have less rogue egg shell pieces that way.
See? It broke evenly in half!
Mix in the peppermint extract making sure you get all the way to the bottom in the mixing process. Bake according to the box. When the brownies are done (a fork or toothpick inserted comes out clean), pour the mint chocolate chips evenly over the top of the brownies. In a few minutes, the heat from the brownies will melt the chips so you can spread them like frosting. It's a nice little chocolatey crust.

Minty and Melty!
I have to confess that I made these brownies as a back up for the cookies I'm about to show you. I had this box of angel food cake mix in my cupboard forever, so I really needed to do something with it. Since I can't find the pan that I would need to make that in (moving is hard), I did a Google search for "angel food cake cookies" and I got the recipe for Angel Macaroon Cookies. I wasn't sure how they would turn out, so I thought I would need a back up. Plus, I have very hungry women at my book club, so I figured it couldn't hurt to have more.

Here is how I made the recipe for Angel Macaroons (or as Steve calls them, Snow Angels).
1 box of angel food cake mix
1 small package of sweetened coconut flakes (about 2 1/2 cups)
1/2 cup water
1 1/2 tsp almond extract

Mix all ingredients in a large bowl. Because the box of my cake mix said not to use a plastic bowl, I used my big ol' trusty glass mixing bowl with a handle on it. There were very specific directions on how long to mix things for and at what speed. Since I didn't read the directions about "folding in the coconut flakes" and I just dumped them in, I figured I should at least follow the directions for beating the dough more closely: Beat on low speed for 30 seconds. Scrape bowl; beat on medium speed for 1 minute.

Well, we all know that I'm likely to break hand mixers, but we bought a new one that should be able to handle a little coconut. And boy did it work well! This thing could have drilled through the wall!

Awesome new mixer! It even has a retractable cord, bowl rest, and lots of attachments!
After you have it all mixed up and it looks really sticky, drop by small, rounded teaspoonfuls 2 inches apart onto a parchment paper-lined baking sheet. This is important for two reasons: 
Oh how they grew... Especially that guy in the upper right corner.
  1. There is no "grease" in the mix, so the parchment paper is important. Angel food doesn't like oil - it doesn't get puffy if there is grease. I did not use parchment paper (ran out), and my non-stick pans didn't do quite the whole job.
  2. Be sure and separate them because they will grow. My little spoonful of dough turned into a big cookie.

Bake at 350° for 10-12 minutes or until lightly browned. Remove paper with cookies to wire racks to cool. Marvel at the deliciousness that is the Angel Macaroon. Steve saw how some of the cookies stuck together to look like snowmen, so he now calls these "Snow Angel Cookies." He's a bit disappointed that they are going in the bake sale. Fortunately, they're super easy to make. They'll make an appearance at our house again!

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Taco trade off

Good morning!
I was all set to take pictures of our meal last night to share with you today, but although it tasted good, we think we won't make it again. I sort-of, kind-of followed the Taste of Home recipe for Baked Chicken and Acorn Squash. If I had actually used canned peaches and rosemary, it probably would have tasted really good. However, I didn't have either of them, so I though I would use some thyme instead since that goes good with chicken. Overall, it was very tasty (especially the squash!), so you should try it, but my red-pepper-loving husband asked for "more kick, less sweet". I had to agree.

Instead of sharing photos and such of the chicken and squash, I am going to share my sister-in-law, Beth's taco seasoning recipe. This way you get all the spice and none of those ingredients you can't even pronounce!

Beth's Homemade Taco Seasoning:
1 Tbsp chili powder

1 1/2 tsp cumin
1/2 tsp paprika
1/4 tsp garlic powder
1/4 tsp onion powder
1/4 tsp oregano
1/4 tsp red pepper flakes or 1/8 tsp cayenne
1 tsp pepper
1/4 tsp salt (or to taste)

Add to ground meat (lean beef or turkey) and simmer with 3/4 cup water.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Non-food crushes

Hi Crushers,

I just wanted to share a few links today to some other bloggers that I get a kick out of because THEY ARE AWESOME.

1. Tina from Carrots 'N' Cake or CNC
Tina is a fitness and pug fan that blogs about food, fitness programs, her family and her pug, Murphy. He's adorable and obsessed with chicken. She is also doing a #24daysoftogetherness project with her husband. Last year, I made a huge Advent calendar out of an over-the-door shoe organizer for my husband, Steve, and filled it with all sorts of little treats from his favorite candy to books to restaurant gift cards to new ornaments for the tree to a box of bandages (we climbed Half Dome on our honeymoon). Since I've got a different plan for his gift this year, I am joining Tina's #24daysoftogetherness for our Advent calendar. You can too!

Day 1: Sing and Dance to Christmas Carols - CHECK!
Day 2: Make an ornament - see photo proof!
I have paint on my fingers from making gifts for our "handmade Christmas" party.
We did some finger painting. That's supposed to be a heart made from our thumbprints.
It says, "Our first Christmas as Mr. and Mrs. 2012"

Day 3: Eat dinner by candlelight - CHECK!

Day 4 (today): Play a board game. This morning was full of "Tonight I will win!" trash talk. Muwahahah

2. Ree from The Pioneer Woman
Yes, Ree is an awesome cook and I have been making a number of her recipes lately, but she is also very crafty and has a very interesting life on a ranch to read about. She cracks me up because she must write like she talks. I'd definitely take this woman out for a cup of coffee.

3. Tiffany from The Nest Effect
This woman is a teacher and recently-married person who loves organization. I can't say that I'm as organized as she is, but Tiffany sure has some great ideas! From time to time, she shares free printables. She also has an Etsy shop.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Advent by Candlelight with Easy Chocolate Cherry Trifle

Hey Crushers,
This past weekend was full of getting ready for Christmas Spirit! Every year for the past 15-ish years, our church has hosted a Christmas program for women called "Advent by Candlelight" or ABC. The idea behind the program is that the holidays are always filled with hustle and bustle, so sometimes we forget the real purpose of Christmas is to celebrate Jesus' birth as the fulfillment of a long-ago promise that God would send a Savior to the world. This often gets mixed up in the cookies and lights and stockings and cards and shopping and wrapping and groceries and cooking and more and more... Although you hear about the true "reason for the season", this really makes you stop and think about it.

For ABC, there are table hostesses that invite friends, family, acquaintances and neighbors to join them in a relaxing afternoon of fellowship, faith and desserts. I was a reader for ABC and I am in the handbell choir which played "Tree of Life" and "Here I am Lord" as part of the program. The theme for this year was "Here I am Lord" about how God often used the unexpected woman in the Bible to help bring about His promise of a Savior. You never know when you're going to be called to a bigger purpose!

Jen's ABC table (before we lit the
candles). Note the baking soda
on the table in case of fire.

Part of the fun is that we hold this whole event with only a few electric lights for the readers and musicians. All of the tables for participants are lit by candles. Every hostess is encouraged to decorate her table and bring a dessert to share. Since my sister and I got married this year, I was able to recycle a lot of the table decorations from our weddings. I wrapped mason jars (from my wedding) with sheer ribbon for a nice glow and used a Christmas/wintry centerpiece that my mom gave me as a gift a few years ago. She also let me borrow some of her white dishes so the whole table was red and white. I got lots of compliments, so that was very nice, but I must say that each hostess really showed how creative she is!

For the dessert, I wanted to make something that I could just hand out individually instead of needing to slice and serve. Cupcakes are a great option, but I was feeling a bit caked-out after all the weddings this year. So, I made individual Chocolate Cherry Trifle cups! Instead of putting it in one big trifle bowl (which would give me the scoop and serve problem), I put them in clear plastic cups. They were easy to make, easy to serve, and everyone enjoyed them!

Chocolate Cherry Trifle Cups
1 box of chocolate cake mix (plus 3 eggs, 1 1/3 cup water, 1/2 cup oil)
2 packages instant chocolate pudding (plus 4 cups of cold milk)
1 large tub of whipped topping
1 can of cherry pie filling
1 square of semi-sweet baking chocolate (mini chocolate chips would work, too)

Bake the chocolate cake according to the directions on the box. If you're feeling ambitious, go ahead and make chocolate cake from scratch (I ran out of time because we were giving the house a good pre-Christmas decorations cleaning). While that is in the oven, make the chocolate pudding according to the package. I sound like I'm on "Sandra Lee's Semi-Homemade Cooking", don't I? It works!

Assembly process
Once the cake has cooled (takes about an hour), it's time to start assembling. I needed to make enough for 12 servings, so I grabbed a muffin tin to help me keep the cups from tumbling over, plus it's easy to carry! Cut the cake in 1 x 1 inch squares or just tear it with your fingers in little clumps. Layer each cup with the following: cake, chocolate pudding, whipped topping, cherry pie filling, cake, whipped topping. Be sure and spread out each layer so you can see it from the outside.

All done! I saved putting on the chocolate shavings until I was ready to serve them.

Tip: You can cover these and put them in the fridge overnight, but I wouldn't make this two nights ahead. That might make them a little too soggy. For a pretty garnish on top, take that chunk of baking chocolate and shave off some with a veggie peeler.