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.

Gift Idea…A Family Cookbook

I have some friends who like to give me a hard time about my from-scratch baking and the sometimes-semi-gourmet nature of my kids’ lunchbox contents. This post is for them. This past weekend was my mother-in-law’s 70th birthday celebration. And there had to be cake. My husband wanted to decorate a cake with our four-year-old…so they just needed a canvas. I had a box full of decorations and some fondant…so I handed over three layers of blank chocolate frosting…and somehow a monster truck came to be. And yes, the first “N” is actually a “Z” turned on its side. We ran out of “N”s.  And the other “N” might or might not have gotten broken.   My husband placed the letters and our son did the rest. Fondant. Cookie cutters. Sprinkles.

Oh, except for the border on the bottom of the cake – I might have had something to do with that.   Now, some of these friends of mine might imagine I had a hard time with this being THE birthday cake. I did not. (OK, there might have been a brief flash of panic for just a few moments as those four-year-old little hands starting placing fondant…but it went away. Really.)

And there’s a good reason I wasn’t as concerned with the cake as I usually am.   I’ve been a little busy with something else…

This was so much fun to make. Easily one of my favorite gifts I’ve ever given.

"Kitchen Memories: A Collection of Favorite Family Recipes"

Months ago my mother-in-law was talking about some very old family recipes – things made by her mother and her grandmother – and she was expressing some concern that, one day, when she is no longer making them, no one will be making them.

So the simple idea to gather and save all the meaningful family dishes into one collection was born.

Family members sent in their recipes and memories about the dishes and the people who made them…and some great old family photos.

I made most of the recipes, photographed them and compiled everything with the family photos and memories. My husband had several weeks of eating food from his childhood that he certainly did not complain about.

Some things I learned or was reminded of:

1. Most of people’s memories were only triggered by the food – the actual recollection was about the quality time spent in the kitchen or around the table. Grandchildren told of playing with bubbles in the sink and about making what seemed like a thousand batches of chocolate chip cookies (not necessarily about eating them!)

2. There was a strong theme of love demonstrated through the daily ritual of food preparation…the idea that this line of women dedicated a significant amount of themselves to the very careful and loving feeding of their families. Every day. Every meal. For years. And years.

3. I recognized that in the menus from two and three generations back there was such simplicity in the food. They ate what they had. Some of the old recipes literally called for the “canned tomatoes from the garden” and the chicken and beef came from their own land.

4. It also got me thinking about what my children and possible future grandchildren would submit to a similar project. And then I started to panic about not having enough regular “favorites” in the rotation…about not having holiday must-have recipes cemented into the line-up…reconsidering the notion of taco night or pizza night just to throw in another possibility for childhood memories…but then again, I tend to overthink those kinds of things and panic for no real reason. I know.

Mostly, I hope, my mother-in-law saw it as an expression of appreciation for the thousands of meals she’s put on the table in front of her family. And, as my husband put it, that she feels honored for “perfecting the tastes and smells that would help us define ‘home’ forever.”

Birthdays!!

It is safe to say that birthdays are a “gather around the table” event. They are honored with gifts and hoopla, cemented in our memories with photos and, these days, if the parents are really irresponsible, they can even make a TV show about your birthday.

We haven’t gotten crazy with birthday parties in our house…but I do make birthday snacks to send to school.

A little muffin with your monster truck?

This year was all about monster trucks, including the red velvet cake and most of the gifts. These monster-topped snacks were actually applesauce muffins with a thick glaze instead of cakes with icing.  The chocolate sprinkles helped make them look a little more like regular cupcakes.

And, let’s see,  last year I sent little mice. These were really fun to make.

Mini chocolate cakes with white icing piped on…mini ‘Nilla Wafers for ears, M&Ms for eyes, a mini kiss for a nose and long chocolate sprinkles for whiskers.

Let’s talk about birthdays…not the food part, but the other part. The tradition and celebration part.

The older our boys get the more I think about how much we, as parents, are in control of their experiences and memories…that the traditions we create will be the background for their childhood memories and the launching pad for their own adult perspective. Several years ago I was taking a class at our church and the instructor told us about the birthday breakfast tradition in her family. After hearing her explanation, I realized it was genius and promptly stole it as my own.

Our first Birthday Breakfast in '08

Her reasoning for the family celebration happening at breakfast was that it becomes nearly untouchable. I mean, even when the kids are 16 and 18 and wanting to have parties with their pals and take trips…are you ever going to have to give up the family birthday breakfast? Probably not. Chances are good that’s a meal they’ll still have at home.

Birthday Breakfast in '09...getting fancier with the pancakes.

Breakfast is one of the easiest meals of the day, too…and it’s not a stretch to get most breakfast staples to feel like dessert.  Hello? Belgium waffles. French toast…  a la mode.   See?

Also, decorating is a snap because you can do it the night before and have it be a fun still-groggy-stumbling-into-the-kitchen surprise.

Birthday Breakfast '10 with monster truck pancakes, chocolate chip hubcaps.

And then really fast-forward to the years where there are girl/boyfriends involved, wives/husbands and kids of their own – chances are still good that the birthday breakfast tradition will continue, if they live close enough.  The instructor of that class was telling us about it because she had just had a birthday breakfast that morning with her oldest son and his wife and their three kids and she was so delighted the tradition was holding up.

A mom can hope, right??

Not so sure about this whole party thing...

We’ve extended the breakfast celebrations in our house to the adults, too. (Confession: I’m a more savory breakfast kind of girl, so I usually request eggs benedict instead of monster truck pancakes…but really as long as there is caffeine, I’m happy.)

So, I’d love to hear about other family birthday traditions…really, do tell. I’m not above stealing ideas from you, too.

Even More Food to Share

We had Hamburger Helper on occasion when I was growing up. I don’t remember anything specific about it, really, just that it was there sometimes. And I think homemade versions of the Hamburger Helper concept are great food-to-share recipes. (I say “homemade” because the sodium content of the boxed version should send you into orbit. Seriously. It shouldn’t be legal. Take note that the numbers refer to 1 cup of the prepared meal.)

This is easy to throw together with things you probably have in your kitchen most of the time: macaroni, ground beef or turkey, onions, bell peppers, some spices, some canned tomato products, brown sugar and cheese.

Nothing fancy here, folks. But my grandmother enjoyed it and was delighted to have it on hand to share with some people who dropped by.

Mission accomplished.

As I write this, she is not at home enjoying a home-cooked meal. In fact, she was admitted to the hospital today. We’re not sure how serious it is, but I’m going to keep stockpiling these easy-to-share recipes just so I’m prepared to help when she returns home.

This process always speaks to me about how intimately food is tied to our communities and to our families…how integral it is in the fabric of our lives. It is a very immediate, tangible kind of support to deliver a meal to someone.

I’ve been going to my grandmother’s house several days a week to check in on her, help out, and drop off food. And I always go on the days I pick up my son from preschool. After several weeks of this new routine he started asking me as soon as he got into the car, “Are we going to MeMaw’s house?” And when I would say “yes” he would ask, “Why?” In the beginning I just said, “To visit and drop off some food.” That seemed to satisfy his question.

But after awhile I realized I was missing out on a great teaching opportunity. I was neglecting a chance to instill something in him about family. Since then the conversation has been a little different.

When he gets in the car he still asks, “Are we going to MeMaw’s house?”

I still say “yes” and he still asks “why?”

“To see how her day is going and if we can help her with anything…and because I have her dinner for tonight and her lunch for tomorrow.”

“But we just took her dinner, didn’t we?”

“Yes, we did. And she ate it. And now she needs dinner again. Don’t you eat dinner every night?”

“Yes, I guess. How long will we keep taking her dinner?”

“For as long as she needs us to do it. This is just one little way we can let her know we love her and want to help her and take good care of her. Isn’t that what families are supposed to do?”

And then one of those little light bulb moments I adore:

“Do you make my lunch and dinner because you love me and because you are my family?”

Mission accomplished.

I hope we have many more weeks ahead of us to keep having this conversation. And if we don’t, then I suspect there will be other lessons ready for us about what families do to support each other when they need it.

Cheesy Beef Macaroni

adapted from RelishRelish!

12 – 16 ounces macaroni

1 1/2 pounds ground meat

2 TB vegetable oil

2 yellow onions, chopped

1 red bell pepper, chopped

2-3 cloves garlic, pressed

2 TB chili powder

1 1/2 TB ground cumin

1 14.5-oz can diced tomatoes

1 28-ounce can tomato puree

1 1/2 TB brown sugar

2 cups grated cheddar cheese

Cook the pasta until still firm to the bite – a little less than al dente. Reserve 1/2 cup of the cooking liquid when you drain the pasta and set it aside.

Brown the ground meat until no longer pink and drain off any fat. Set meat aside.

Saute the onions and peppers in the oil until they just begin to soften. Add the spices and garlic and continue to cook until they brown a bit (about 7 minutes – you want a nice rich color here.) Add the diced tomatoes, tomato puree, brown sugar, reserved pasta water and ground meat. Bring to a simmer and allow flavors to meld for 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Turn off the heat and stir in pasta.  Salt and pepper to taste. Pour into baking dish (9×13…or 2 8×8…or even smaller portions if you plan to freeze several.) Sprinkle with cheese.  (If freezing, you are finished here – cover and put in freezer. When ready to eat it, thaw completely and bake in a 350 degree oven until warmed through – about 25-30 minutes.)

If serving immediately, pop in a 350 degree oven for 10-12 minutes to really melt cheese and warm through.

Kids at the Table

So, anyone else out there struggle with small children at the table?

Obviously, I feel that family-around-the-table time is important…but that doesn’t mean it is always easy.  The mess.  The whining.  The refusal to eat anything that isn’t macaroni and cheese.  And, in my case, my son is usually almost finished with what he’s going to eat before I finally get settled in my own chair.  He’ll ask to be excused and then begins his barrage of requests to play, come see, or sit in our lap with toys making it impossible for us to eat.

I certainly admit to feeling like “why did I even bother going to all this trouble to put dinner on the table if no one even gets to enjoy it?  Throwing a pizza out here would have been much less frustrating.”

So, here’s a list of some ideas I have used or come across online:

  • Practice makes “perfect.” OK, well maybe not perfect…but it’s true that simply creating the habit of the family meal will make the process easier as kids get older.  If it’s just what you’ve always done, they are less likely to be resistant.
  • Turn off the TV.  Turn off  the phone/let it ring. It’s best to not have any distractions during dinner and this will send the message to your kids that spending quality time with them is more important than television or the phone.  And, if you are like my husband and can’t stand to eat in the quiet, turn on some fun music to set the mood!
  • Have the kids help. It’s true that kids are more likely to eat the food if they have been involved with making it.  And this isn’t just about food preparation – setting the table, putting ice in the glasses, getting out the butter and condiments are easy tasks for kids to help with while you are cooking.  My three-year-old is delighted to add salt and pepper to things before I cook them, to stir the lemonade or fruit punch in the pitcher and to pour the rice and water from the measuring cups into the rice cooker…even though these are small tasks, he proudly tells his dad “I helped make dinner” when it’s time to sit down.
  • Keep it positive. This is not the time to nag or bring up disciplinary issues – save those for family meetings or a private talk.  Conversation should be respectful and fun and inclusive – everyone should have a chance to talk without fear of being teased or put down.  When in doubt, ask yourself if you are listening more than you are talking.  (Here’s a great article on talking to your kids about their day.)
  • Don’t forget manners. This is a great chance to teach your children life-long social skills.  When kids feel confident they know how to behave in common social settings it builds their self-esteem.  Best way to teach manners?  By example.
  • Don’t fight over the food.  Once the food is on the plate, my job is done.  If they eat it, great.  If they don’t, that’s OK too.  I do my best to put a variety of healthy options in front of him and encourage him to taste new things – alongside things I know he already likes.  And yes, sometimes it means that later in the evening I’m saying, “Well, maybe you’ll like breakfast.”  I’m not a short-order cook.  (And my pediatrician keeps reminding me not to look at what my toddler eats in a day, but rather over the course of a whole week…and that makes me feel a little less anxious, but just a little!)  We also ask that he sits at the table with us even when he says he isn’t hungry at all – because it’s not just about the food, it’s family time.
  • Get creative and mix things up.  This is some of the fun of parenting, in my opinion.  Once or twice every other week or so, do something different…something that still protects the family time, but doesn’t feel like the run-of-the-mill dinner.  It can be simple:
  1. order a pizza for game night twice a month.
  2. Check out this list of conversation starters to generate ideas for new, out-of-the-box table talk.  Or this one. Or this one.
  3. Pack up dinner and head outside to a park or a playground – fresh air and a change of scenery can make dinner feel renovated.
  4. Let your kids plan the menu once in awhile (last time we did that we had fish sticks and macaroni and cheese for dinner and it was fun to feel 8 again!)
  5. Or you can get more complicated, especially if your kids are older:  for example, my dear friend Erica grew up in an awesome family where they would periodically have theme-night dinners.  Her mother would select a foreign country well ahead of time and create a menu that incorporated foods native to that place.  The kids would dress up in theme-related costumes and even bring reports to dinner with interesting facts about that foreign land.  (I know what you are thinking…sounds like a school assignment…however, I can attest to how much fun it is!  We were lucky enough to be invited to a Thanksgiving dinner at her parents’ house one year…we all went in costumes and there was a rousing trivia challenge.  It was one of the best Thanksgiving celebrations we’ve ever been part of and I remember thinking how lucky Erica is to have that as a regular family tradition.)
  6. There are also some great character building ideas from a company called “Once Upon a Family” that can help solidify some powerful family traditions at the dinner table.  (I have a future post planned with more details as well.)

So what else?  What works in your house?  What dinner table problem drives you bananas?

Experiments: Part I

So recently we had some experiments going in our household…and they each pertain to The Table in their own way.

First, we had a week that was kind of busy and I couldn’t seem to get myself organized enough to get to the store with any kind of meaningful grocery list.  It made me think about all those times I’ve heard people talk about having their routine weekly menu to fall back on.  Those of you who know about my culinary ADD know that a “weekly routine” when it comes to food is something that rarely happens around here!  But I thought I’d give some of those ideas a try.

I’m talking about the families who have “Pizza Night” and “Taco Night” and other various kinds of nights.  I love the idea for lots of reasons and am toying with the notion of implementing some of them in our house.  For one thing, the routine aspect of it makes menu planning much simpler…and another thing, kids love a predictable routine.  I smile when I hear people talk about their childhood and can reference this kind of family tradition. (Not to mention all these other important benefits.)

Maria Shriver once told a story about how they had Cereal Night once a week in her house growing up.  It was supposed to teach the kids a lesson about doing without or doing with less so they could give to others (they sponsored starving children in foreign countries.)  So, on Cereal Night they would talk about one of the countries in which one of their sponsorees lived and have cereal for dinner – the money they would have normally spent on meat and potatoes was sacrificed to help others.  Great idea – and the cute part of the story was that Maria said they never had the heart to tell their mother that they LOVED Cereal Night – it always felt like a treat instead of a sacrifice!  And, even better, she was telling the story in answer to a question about how her parents had instilled the notion of service into their children throughout their lives.

We certainly didn’t do anything as grandiose as feeding starving children, but we did try out a couple of the standard theme night dinners last week.  Monday we did “Breakfast for Dinner Night” (which is one of my husband’s favorites) and mostly that one happened because I really, really needed to go to the grocery store…all we had in the kitchen was eggs, bagels, sausage and some hash browns in the freezer.  Wednesday night was “Taco Night” with super standard hard-shell tacos and all the fillings.  I made some quick quacamole and microwaved some Mexican rice…that was it!  Easy breezy.  Friday was “Let the Kids Choose Dinner Night” with a predictable menu of fish sticks, french fries and macaroni & cheese…guaranteed to make everyone feel like they are seven again!  (Although I did at least make the mac&cheese instead of going to the familiar blue box of my own childhood.)

What I discovered is this:

It’s a great idea to have items for these themed-dinner nights on-hand most of the time because they are great go-to meals when you are out of time, can’t get to the store, or simply don’t feel like thinking about what to make for dinner.

If I could get myself a little more organized, it would be fun to have these on a regular enough basis that, when grown, my children might say, “Ah Thursdays, yep, that was usually Spaghetti Night when I was a kid,” and then hopefully add, “My mom made the best meatballs!”  🙂

So, what about you?  Do you currently have some standard theme meals you depend upon?  Did you when you were growing up?  I’d love some ideas as I embark on putting some routines in place at our Table.

Luncheon Party

My mother’s cousin, whom I refer to as my aunt, is one of my most favorite people in the world.  In fact, we often tease that I should have been her daughter and perhaps was switched as an infant (her own daughter was born just two short weeks after me.)  Anyway, she is a fantastic cook and even more fantastic hostess.  I love the get-togethers at her house…”Hen Parties” as her husband calls them.  She had one recently and this time it was a Surprise Pot Luck.  (A very uncharacteristic thing to have in my family full of control-freaks, but it worked out well.)  It’s simple: Bring something to eat.  Don’t tell anyone else what you are bringing.

So, yes, it means you could end up with five salads or, even better, five desserts.  Or, you might wind up with a fun hodge-podge of yummy things, which is pretty much what happened.

I spent way too much time pondering what to take – or rather trying to figure out what I thought everyone else would bring!  I finally decided on Italian tea-style sandwiches and deviled eggs.  (And, of course, the only duplicate we had was the eggs – my aunt did them, too!  See, I really was switched at birth.)

There was also some pasta, a big salad with chicken in it, pecan pie and a chocolate cake…and lots of talking and solving of important problems.

Eggs

Sandwiches

So, deviled eggs can be kind of awful if you aren’t careful.  Usually, I find them to have way too much mayonnaise in the filling.  There’s a million ways to season that filling, so I’m not going to give an exact recipe here…just a few words on what I think should be standard-deviled-egg-making-steps.

First, the eggs themselves.  If you will store your carton of eggs on its side before boiling them, the yolk will settle in the middle of each egg making it much easier to fill since your little cup will be centered in the white.  Those flimsy, thin white sides that don’t hold the filling in are kind of messy.  Also, place the eggs into cold water in the pan and then turn on the heat.  When the water reaches a full boil, turn it off and cover  the pan for ten minutes.  The residual heat is enough to finish cooking the eggs.  When hard-boiled eggs are over-cooked they get that gray-green tint around the edges of the dry yolk.  They’ll be prettier if not over done…and the yolks will taste better.

Deviled Egg

As for the filling, well the possibilities are endless.  Pieces of shrimp.  Bacon.  Capers.  I mean, really, you can do just about anything here.  These particular eggs got a little mayo, a little more sour cream (I prefer that to cut the excess mayo taste,) a few spoonfuls of chipotle-mustard and salt and pepper.  And a sprinkle of dill at the end for color.

Egg Tray

Now for tea-style sandwiches.  These are so easy.  First the bread:

Bread

Aren’t these cute?  I used the refrigerated Italian loaf dough in a cute little fluted bread tube.  When you slice the cylinder of a loaf, you get these cute little flowers.  Too much.

Tomato Ricotta Basil

Then you spread each slice with some seasoned ricotta cheese (salt, pepper and Italian seasoning,) add sliced tomatoes, basil and some cucumbers, season again…and that’s it!

Sandwich Assembly

Secure with some toothpicks and look how fun they are piled on a platter together:

Sandwich Tray

Sandwich Close

So, go plan a “Hen Party” of your own and don’t let anyone coordinate what they are bringing…see what happens!