Holiday Hen Party

My aunt hosts a great holiday get-together each year that her husband refers to as the “hen party.”  She’s a wonderful hostess and we are always so happy to kick off the holidays with a yummy lunch and a goodie swap.

My aunt, grandmother and mother...and little Addison hiding her face at the end

Look at that pretty table! Christmas china and linens and freshly-polished silver…beautiful!

The other half of the table...and Addison is not hiding her face now. Such a cutie!

And since the hostess was taking the photos, she’s not in them! So I’ll just rave about her food instead. There was a green chili chicken stew that was so yum I could have just eaten that. Of course, I didn’t. There were too many other options: chips and guacamole and crackers and dips (including a wonderful pesto torte) and a huge green salad.

It was lovely.

I’m particularly grateful for holidays with my grandmother, whose health, as regular readers know, has been declining this past year.

My aunt's mother-in-law (left,) who is over 90, and my grandmother who is not yet 90.

We got to hear some great stories about how Laura, my aunt’s mother-in-law, used to bake for the holidays…and when I say “bake” I mean like you can’t imagine. Reportedly she produced hundreds of dozens of goodies every year for friends and neighbors. Did you hear that? HUNDREDS – plural. They were telling stories of how her dining room would be buried in containers of cookies and breads and endless treats. Amazing. Wish I could have seen that!

And, for the record, my husband’s favorite treat from this goodie swap was hers. I didn’t even get to try one. He ate them all.

Here’s the platter of holiday delights that I came home with. Let’s review:

Graham crackers covered with gooey goodness and chocolate. (Recipe Below)
These are called Fat Ladies...really, no need for further explanation. (Recipe below)
An oldie but a goodie, date-wrapped pecans rolled in powdered sugar.
Chocolate cookies with chocolate-mint candies melted on top.
Dubbed "Reindeer Droppings," they couldn't be simpler. Peanuts and marshmallows coated in chocolate. The other variation is cashews and dried cranberries. Who doesn't love "candy making" without the pesky thermometer? (Recipe below)
And finally, my husband's favorite, the glorious macaroon. Wish I could tell you how yummy they were, but I can't. So pretty though!

I love this annual tradition for several reasons. Simple time with loved ones is up there. A fantastic lunch that is served to me is also high on the list. But it’s really nice to have this gorgeous tray of delicacies on my kitchen counter without having to do any of the work, too! (And my visitors the past few days have been pretty happy about that as well.)

Now, I didn’t include my contribution to the swap. That’s coming in another post. But I do have recipes for some of these sweets, so don’t despair.

And also, one last photo of my family…and our gorgeous hostess is IN this one! Let’s hear it for the party planners!!

Me, my mom, my aunt/our hostess, my grandmother and my aunt. Or, I could list them all by their "grandma names" because that is fun, too: Me, Gigi, Aunt Granny/Grammy, MeMaw and NaiNai.

CHOCOLATE CHIP TOFFEE GRAHAMS

as written to me by Aunt Kathy

11 whole graham crackers broken into squares
1 cup  butter
1 cup  sugar
1 tsp  ground cinnamon
1/2 c  chopped pecans
1 6oz package chocolate chips (I use a bit more)
Arrange graham crackers in single layer in jelly pan. Combine butter and sugar in a small saucepan and cook over medium heat. (Slight boil  2 minutes.) Stir in cinnamon and pecans. Pour over graham crackers and bake at 350 for 10-12 minutes. While still warm out of oven sprinkle with chocolate chips and cool for 5 minutes. Transfer to wax paper and refrigerate. I put in a tin can and freeze. They are best  when cold.

 

REINDEER NUGGET CANDY (aka Reindeer Droppings)

from the newspaper, source: Teegie Collins

6 oz semi-sweet chocolate bark

12 oz dark chocolate chips

8 oz lightly salted dry roasted peanuts

5-6 oz small white marshmallows

Microwave the bark and chocolate chips for 30 seconds on high. Stir. Continue for 30 seconds longer (until melted.) Stir in peanuts and marshmallows. Drop on foil by the tablespoon. Let stand until hard.

Really. That’s it. So…any last minute need for a holiday treat? No excuses. You can whip these up in less than 5 minutes. OK, onto the Fat Ladies…

 

FAT LADIES

from “Flavor” the San Antonio Junior League cookbook – and a big THANK YOU to Marquel for my copy! I’m pretty much restricted from purchasing any more cookbooks…but no one said anything about getting them as gifts! Love that.

1 roll refrigerator chocolate chip cookies

1 6-oz package semi-sweet chocolate chips

32 Kraft light caramels

1/4 cup light cream

1 cup chopped pecans

Cut cookie dough 1/4 inch thick and press into a 9x12x2 pan. Bake at 375° for 20 minutes. While baking, melt caramels into cream. Cool cookie slightly and sprinkle with chocolate chips. Spread with caramel mixture. Top with chopped pecans and refrigerate. Cut into squares.

Next: Cranberry Pumpkin Bread, Chocolate Gingerbread Tea Cakes and Peppernuts.

Back to Work

So here we go. Back to work.

Yikes.

It’s been about five years. On some days that feels like yesterday and, on others, it seems like a different lifetime.

Generally, I am celebrating this new phase. In addition to a little panic about how to make childcare and budgets work. On top of the worry that there won’t be enough clients soon enough to make this whole thing happen. And the little voice in the background which keeps asking, “How in the world will you be a sometimes-stay-at-home mom, a wife and a working marriage and family therapist who needs to market, build a new practice and do continuing education while still finding a way to get dinner on the table, keep the mountain of laundry to a minimum, run a local non-profit, get to the gym at least once a year and occasionally read a book?”

Of course the answer is that a ton of people do it every day, and some of them even make it look easy. Surely, I’ll be able to figure it out.

And, if not, there’s always cake.

Right?

Oh, and here’s the recipe for this one. I made this for a birthday party for a family friend…she likes mint and chocolate. OK, I must go make a list of all the other things I should be doing instead of talking about cakes.

Daring Kitchen: Chocolate Pavlovas and Chocolate Mascarpone Mousse

The June 2010 Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Dawn of Doable and Delicious. Dawn challenged the Daring Bakers to make Chocolate Pavlovas and Chocolate Mascarpone Mousse. The challenge recipe is based on a recipe from the book Chocolate Epiphany by Francois Payard.

Do you know what a pavlova is? I had heard of them, but couldn’t have told you exactly what they are. Meringue. Sort of like Divinity, if you’ve had that.

And I tried to make them in shapes that weren’t round…because otherwise they start to look like, well, like, you know. So, even though I’m not a fan of hearts usually, these are kind of cute.

So you start with meringue, sort of:

Egg whites and sugar whipped to soft peaks. Powdered sugar and cocoa folded in…and then you pipe it out onto baking sheets. They bake in a 200° oven for 3 hours. You wind up with these crunchy chocolate meringue cookie-like things, which my 4-year-old was happy to eat all by themselves.

Next is chocolate mascarpone mousse. It is pretty straightforward, except that I didn’t have any mascarpone and couldn’t find any. I went to two stores. That’s my limit. Two. After that, I decide to improvise. The whole in and out of the car seats and grocery stores with two kids…two stores…that’s it. I’m kind of a wimp.

(If you have cream cheese and whipping cream and sour cream, you can make a suitable substitute. Of course, I would rather have had the real thing, but this did in a pinch.) After I made my fake mascarpone, I moved on to the mousse.

Heavy cream and lemon zest over medium heat

You add chocolate to the hot cream and whisk until smooth and then set aside. Cream and nutmeg are mixed with the fake mascarpone and whipped…then a splash of Grand Marnier and whip until peaks form.

Chocolate and whipped mascarpone

When the whipped fake mascarpone gets folded into the chocolate and chilled, you have chocolate mascarpone mousse. The recipe didn’t say to chill it, but I wasn’t ready to build the little pavlova creations right away, so it sat in the ‘fridge for awhile. The texture improved considerably. You want it to be nice and firm so it can sit on top of the pavlova and hold some fruit or some other yummy thing.

That little dollop on top is mascarpone cream made with crème anglaise. And there are lots of steps to this little dollop…more steps than I remember doing to be honest. Here are some photos:

Creme anglaise in process
Mascarpone into chilled creme anglaise
Fresh whipped cream being folded into mascarpone and creme anglaise

That’s how you get the dollop. Seems like a lot of steps! It’s a yummy dollop. Really.

I made two little pavlovas…one in the heart shape and one deconstructed.

And this is what we had for dinner tonight. Really.

There’s fruit in there, so it’s not that bad. Right?

For full recipes and more pavlovas, check out The Daring Kitchen.

Pumpkin Muffins

Do you ever grab those little breakfast muffins in the bakery at your grocery store? Are you ever jolted by how super-sweet they are? I like the idea of muffins for breakfast, but I don’t like them to be too sweet. And no, I’m not a fan of those all-bran-sawdust muffins, either. Disclosure: I’m a savory-breakfast kinda girl. But, I made these this morning, and with a few tweaks, they will be a perfect breakfast muffin.

Pumpkin isn’t just for the fall, right?

So, the biggest tweak is that I don’t think they need as much chocolate as the original recipe calls for… 1/2 an ounce per muffin tasted like a lot to me. Or maybe those teeny-tiny chocolate chips would be a better choice. I’m inclined to leave them out altogether. Disclosure: I’m not a huge, huge chocolate fan. Now don’t freak out, I didn’t say I DON’T like chocolate, just that I’m not nearly as crazy about it as I know some of you are.

Anyway, I found myself wishing for a little lemon zest flavor to lighten them up a bit and maybe even some poppy seeds. Oh, and cranberries. But I thought, “Do pumpkin and lemon flavors even go together? Can I do that?” Then I remembered a fabulous Christmas gift from my mother. This book. In the back of this book is a huge grid of “Classic and Contemporary Flavor Combinations.” Basically you can look up one flavor and follow its line across the grid to see where it best matches up with berries, nuts, citrus, fruits, chocolate, spices and even some vegetables.  And guess what? Pumpkin and lemon were paired. I’m going to take that as one vote for my tweaking plan.

But if you have to have a daily chocolate fix, these wouldn’t be a bad way to get it.

Pumpkin Muffins

adapted from relish!relish!

1 2/3 cups all-purpose flour

3/4 cup sugar

2 teaspoons pumpkin pie spice

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 large eggs

1 cup pumpkin puree

1/2 cup butter, melted

6 ounces semi-sweet chocolate chips Tweak: replace chocolate chips with dried cranberries.  Add 1 TB lemon zest and 1 1/2 TB poppy seeds.

Mix dry ingredients in a large bowl. Break eggs in another bowl and stir. Add pumpkin and butter to eggs. Stir in chocolate chips. Pour over dry ingredients and gently fold in until all moistened. Do not over mix. Pour in lightly greased muffin pan and bake 22 minutes at 350°. (Be sure to check with cake tester as the batter is a little dense.)

These will also freeze well after cooled completely. Wrapping each muffin in plastic wrap before storing in a large freezer bag will help prevent freezer burn.

Daring Bakers’ Challenge: Marshmallows and Milanos

The July Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Nicole at Sweet Tooth. She chose Chocolate Covered Marshmallow Cookies and Milan Cookies from pastry chef Gale Gand of the Food Network.

This is the other part of The Daring Kitchen website which I joined a month or so ago…remember the fish and the powders?  Anyway, this is the first baking challenge I’ve done and I was excited for two reasons:  I’ve always wanted to try homemade marshmallows and I *heart* Milano cookies.  (Also being nine-plus months pregnant certainly helps in the chocolate craving department.)

The Mallows as the chocolate was setting up (sort of)
The Mallows as the chocolate was setting up (sort of)

Since it is particularly hot here in South Texas in late July, I did have a little trouble keeping the chocolate firm when these cookies were out of the refrigerator.  Next time I will omit the oil from the coating mixture…although storing these in the ‘fridge wasn’t all that bad since they were like a cold, cloud puff of sugary treat each time I snagged another.  Yum.

The cookie dough was easy to work with (although the recipe as written makes WAY more cookies than needed for the marshmallow and chocolate amounts.)  Thankfully, people were already discussing that on The Daring Kitchen forums and I knew to save back half of the cookie dough to use for something else (like blueberry tartlets!)  The cookies by themselves are a great little cinnamon shortbread and could be flavored in any number of ways – a handy recipe to have around with or without the marshmallows.

Nice thin little shortbread cookies with marshmallow "kisses"
Thin little shortbread cookies with marshmallow "kisses"

The marshmallows were much easier to make than I imagined.  However, they are sticky, sticky, sticky and need to be used immediately as they start to set-up fairly quickly.  Just moments before the above photo was taken, I dropped my camera right on top on these and the tip of a kiss went smack dab into the lens cover and lens of the camera.  I’m pretty sure the auto lens cover will never be the same again!  What a mess!!  I think I managed to salvage the camera…at least it is still taking photos.  Anyway, there are all sorts of interesting ways to form marshmallows, as it turns out.  I put mine in a cake decorator tool and pumped/piped it onto the cookies.  Some people spread the marshmallows and then cut them.  Others used an old-school flour mold method that looked really cool.

Don't they look like mini moon pies?
Don't they look like mini moon pies?

Overall, we loved these cookies and I will certainly be making them again sometime with different flavors mixed into the marshmallows…or a layer of caramel might be nice, too.

Now for those Milano cookies…

Milanos

Pepperidge Farm’s Mint Milanos are one of my very favorite cookies…I love to keep them in the freezer.  So, I was delighted to try making these at home.  The cookie dough is really more like a batter and gets piped out onto the cookie sheet…which was a test for my piping skills (or lack thereof!)

You can see how they start to spread on the warm cookie sheet
You can see how they start to spread on the warm cookie sheet

You can use a Silpat or a silicon baking mat on the cookie sheet to help get them really thin and crispy.  I don’t have an honest-to-goodness Silpat baking mat (but would love one, hint, hint, to anyone who reads this and must buy me occasional gifts!) but my Kitchenaid silicon mat seems to work fairly well most of the time.  These cookies take a little practice just because of the shaping issue – since you make them into little sandwiches, it would be nice for all the cookies to be as uniform as possible.  Several bakers on the Daring Baker forums noted that if you let the dough/batter sit for a little while before piping, it holds up better and is a little easier to work with.

The filling is dark chocolate and orange zest - delish!
The filling is dark chocolate and orange zest - delish!

Don’t be alarmed by the seemingly large amounts of extract in these cookies – those amounts are correct (2 TB of each.)  These cookies are meant to have a nice big flavor – much more so than the ones you buy in the store.  And because they are so thin when they bake, a bit of that extract cooks off, too.  When I make these again, I plan to use mint for the filling…and maybe I’ll even make the cookie part chocolate, too.

My little kitchen helper trying to steal a sample!
My little kitchen helper trying to steal a sample!

It was a wonderful way to spend an afternoon and both recipes were really successful.  My 3-year-old was very interested and very involved (puffed sugar and chocolate – what’s not to love?) which is always part of my goal, too.  I let him have a big hunk of the cookie dough, his own pastry roller and a handful of cookie cutters and he crafted his own little masterpieces right alongside me.  Much better than Play-Doh, right?

(Here’s another super-detailed post from a fellow Daring Baker with more information about these recipes that you can imagine…and also alternative recipes, chocolate blooming information and another great example of the flour mold marshmallow method!)

For the complete recipes, check out The Daring Kitchen’s website.

So, go on – get thee to your kitchen and make marshmallows…and let me know if you drop anything important into them!