Monday, December 29, 2008

Our Christmas Baking

We love to bake cookies and other Christmas treats together each year. This year, we continued to simplify this process by whittling down the amount of varieties that we made. I can easily get carried away when baking. Everything is so yummy!

We decided on five different kinds and in the end, I narrowed it down to four, eliminating the time-consuming sugar cut-outs. I think I'll make some of those at Valentine's Day instead!

The treats we made:
1)Chocolate Peanut Squares
2)Chocolate-Dipped Pretzel Rods(directions below)
3) Chocolate-Mint Cookies(recipe below)
4)Oatmeal-Raisin Cookies(recipe below)

The dough for the cookies was made ahead and chilled. We started the cookies baking then did the other two no-bake varieties. We kept the cookies baking the entire time-14 dozen in all! I also made 3 batches of the chocolate-peanut squares and then one bag of large pretzel rods and a half bag of smaller rods that I found this year.

We use a lot of these cookies for sharing. Some of our friends and family request specific kinds at Christmas.

The simplified list was much more manageable and we were able to get everything completed in a timely manner! Not having to frost or decorate anything sped up the process considerably.

We both decided that if we were to choose one kind the make next year, we would make the Chocolate-dipped pretzel rods. They are so pretty and everyone loves them. Plus they're so easy even a non-cook, like my husband, can easily do the whole process by himself. He does most of the work on these every year and does a wonderful job!

Once I made up a platter of our treats, I noticed the brown and tan theme! haha

From left to right, we have chocolate mint cookies, chocolate-dipped mini pretzel rods with toffee bits, chocolate-peanut butter squares and oatmeal raisin cookies. The middle row is a combination.

Chocolate-Dipped Pretzel Rods

--Bag of pretzel rods
--almond bark(white or chocolate) or chocolate chips
--toffee bits, sprinkles or nuts

Melt chocolate. I do this by pouring the chocolate chips in a microwave-safe bowl and heating at 30 second intervals until melted, stirring after each time.

Dip pretzel rod in chocolate. Let drip off the best you can. Sprinkle with sprinkles, toffee bits or nuts and let dry. We try to rig up something to hold the rods up straight so that one side isn't flat, but you can lay them flat on waxed paper, too. A cooling rack with the metal grid works well for some of the rods, depending on the size of the holes.

After dry, you can melt a bit of the opposite color of chocolate to drizzle on the finished rods, if desired. We put white drizzles on the large rods we did(not pictured), but left the smaller one plain with just chocolate and toffee bits. Both were very pretty!

Chocolate-Mint Cookies

This is my own variation on a basic chocolate chip cookie recipe. Because I cook and bake, people bring me baking ingredients that they haven't used. Apparently, they don't have extra money laying around, just flour! A friend brought me several grocery bags of baking supplies last spring, with one bag full of fancy varieties of chocolate chips.

When it came to using the mint chocolate chips(Nestle Toll House Swirls), I was at first just going to add them to a plain chocolate chip cookie. While mixing the dough, I decided to add cocoa and mint extract.

Move over, Girl Scout Thin Mints! These are just as good or better.

The only bad thing about making up this recipe is that I now have requests for the cookies and haven't been able to locate more of the Nestle mint and chocolate chips around here. I've been using Ande's baking chips which taste about the same but aren't as bright green, which I thought was so pretty in such a dark cookie.

--1 cup butter, shortening or margarine
--1 cup brown sugar
--1/2 cup white sugar
--2 eggs
--1/2 to 1 teaspoon peppermint extract- a little goes a long way, adjust as needed. You can also use 1 teaspoon vanilla in place of the mint.
--3/4 cup cocoa
--2 1/2 cups flour
--1 teaspoon baking soda
--1 teaspoon salt
--1 1/2 to 2 cups mint chocolate chips

Cream butter and sugars together. Add eggs and extract. Mix well. Stir in cocoa, flour, soda and salt. Lastly, add chocolate chips.

Roll into balls and flatten slightly. Place on greased baking sheet and bake at 350 degrees for 8 to 10 minutes.

**Add a bit more cocoa if it doesn't seem quite dark enough. This amount has been good for me. A friend made it and hers turned out a lot lighter with the same amount of cocoa. Not sure if different brands would cause that?

Makes about 3 dozen cookies.

Dishpan Oatmeal Raisin Cookies

This is an old fashioned recipe that my family has made for years. 'Dishpan' is in the title because this makes such a large batch of cookies that a dishpan would need to be used to mix the dough!

--2 cups shortening or butter
--2 cups white sugar
--2 cups brown sugar
--4 eggs, beaten
--1 teaspoon vanilla
--3 1/2 cups flour
--2 teaspoons baking soda
--2 teaspoons baking powder
--2 teaspoons salt
--5 cups rolled oats(I like quick oats the best.)
--1 cup raisins
--2 cups coconut, optional
--1 cup chopped nuts, optional
--1 cup chocolate chips, optional

Cream together shortening and sugars. Add eggs and vanilla; mix well. Sift together flour, salt, soda, and baking powder and add to above mixture. Add oats, raisins and any of the optional ingredients. Mix well. Chill dough for at least one hour, then drop by teaspoon full on ungreased cookie sheets. Bake at 350 degrees for 12 to 14 minutes.

Makes about 8 dozen cookies.

**Recipe can be successfully halved.


Saturday, December 27, 2008

A Late Merry Christmas!

We're back from almost a week away that was spent with family. We had a good time but are glad to be home again.

I had planned to have some posts scheduled for automatic posting while I was gone but it just didn't happen. So in the next few days, I'll be posting a few posts that I had planned for before Christmas.

I hope and pray that you all has a wonderful Christmas with your families!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Tour of Homes: Come see Our Christmas Decorations!

Once again, BooMama is hosting the Christmas Tour of Homes. I'm so excited to join in this year! We keep things simple but we always enjoy the decorations that we've put up. We're glad to share them with you!

Come on in! I know you are just miserable standing outside in the 60 degree weather!

Upon entering the room, your eye will be drawn to the mantle where our stockings are hung. The fireplace is not in working order, so no need to be afraid for a fire hazard! Yes, those are gifts set up all pretty on the mantle. We have limited space for items that will be out of reach of little ones and the dog. I used my $1 set of Cat's Meow village as part of the decorations this year. They were already up there; I just removed the fall trees and we have ourselves a winter village! I made the Names of Jesus garland new for this year. We love it!

We like to cut our own tree at a local farm. This year, we wanted a table top size. Again, out of reach of toddlers and pet. Also, small house! We got this child's tree for $5!!!

Every year, we add a new ornament to represent something for that year. We haven't yet received this year's ornament: a dog similar to ours sitting in front of a gingerbread dog house. I can't wait to get it and hope it's as cute as it looked online! We got our dog on New Year's Day so it seemed fitting to add a dog ornament this year.

Because of the size of the tree, we only used our favorite ornaments. And I bet you couldn't tell that the tree skirt is really a tablecloth! It covered the tree stand as well as the dresser on which the tree is setting.

Every year when we go to the tree farm, I admire their fresh wreaths that they've made from clippings. But I usually can't afford both the tree and a fresh wreath. But with this year's $5 tree, I was able to splurge on this beautiful wreath. It was too fat for our front door so it hangs in the living room instead. It smells wonderful! My husband spotted this music-themed Christmas ribbon in a free box while yard-saling this past spring. It made the perfect bow for our wreath!

On a bookshelf stands our nativity. One of my favorite memories from childhood was setting up the nativity each year. It was one of the only decorations we had in our home and we greatly enjoyed it!
The forest of tree candles you see here and on the mantle are handmade beeswax candles from Andy's mom and grandfather.

Isn't it funny how even without collecting, I can end up with enough snowmen for a themed display? These snowmen items have been given to me from various people. I thought they'd look cute on the desk in the dining room this year. My mom has given us some Christmas books which you see held up by snowman salt and pepper shaker "bookends".

Last,we make a stop in the kitchen where you see my intricate method of displaying Christmas cards. They're hung on the mini blind. I got this idea from my mother-in-law. No matter where I hung the cards, they'd always fall down. This solves that problem! The kitchen is a great place to look at pictures of our friends' cute kids, too.

This is the end of our Christmas tour. Thanks so much for stopping by! I hope you enjoyed yourself.

Merry Christmas!

Be sure and stop by BooMama's for a complete list of the Tour of Homes.

A Stocking For Rock

Alternate Title: The Rocking.

Andy and I both have fleece stockings that I made for us the first Christmas that we were married.

Then, we went to Wal-mart and spent a considerable amount of time picking out the right fleece and embellishments. They were/are a simple design. Just sew around the edge, then blanket stitch with crochet thread. I added pom-pom fringe for me and a green ribbon on Andy's.

Fast forward a couple of years and we have a 3rd family member to prepare a stocking for--our sweet dog. I mentioned a stocking and Andy wasn't too sure at first. Then he said that would be fine if I made one instead of buying one that would be more expensive.

I have definitely grown in frugality since that first Christmas. I didn't even buy fleece. Or bother with purchased embellishments. The leftover thrifted red fleece blanket used to back one of these blankets worked perfectly. A brown scrap of felt and a bone-shaped cookies cutter provided the cute bone applique.

I positioned the pattern against the edge of the blanket to take advantage of pre-done blanket stitch for the cuff of the stocking. Then I used the same white crochet thread for the outside of the stocking as what was done on ours. Except for the hand-sewing, this stocking was completed in about 10 minutes flat!

**I still would like to embroider all of our names on our respective stockings.

Rock probably won't care about the stocking. But it looks cute to us and makes us happy.

He will like the bag of treats that will be inside come Christmas morning, though!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Bloggy Progressive Dinner-Three Different Appetizers

Today, Kate from A Simple Walk is hosting the appetizer portion of the Bloggy Progressive Dinner that is going on this week at various blogs. You can read the details of the progressive dinner here.

We love appetizers and I thought of 3 different ones that I could share.

Bacon-Wrapped Smokies, Smoky Cheeseball, and Buffalo Chicken Dip.

Bacon-Wrapped Smokies

My sister introduced me to these yummy morsels this Thanksgiving when I had a package of Little Smokies to use and wanted a good recipe. Is there anything better than bacon-wrapped nitrates? I didn't think so.

These are easy to make, don't have a long list of ingredients and can be frozen ahead.

1 pound package Little Smokies
1 package bacon
brown sugar

Cut bacon strips in 3rds. (You may have some left over. Use another package of Smokies or fry up the bacon and use for another recipe.)
Wrap a raw bacon strip around each sausage and secure with a toothpick.
Place in a glass pan.
Sprinkle the brown sugar over all and drizzle the vinegar over it. At this point you can bake or refrigerate a few hours to overnight.
Bake at 350 degrees for 1 hour. May remove to a small crock pot to keep warm, or eat right away.

Next on the list, we have a family favorite, The Smoky Cheeseball.

This can be made ahead as well as frozen. Make one recipe for a smallish ball; make a double recipe for a large cheeseball. I like to roll this in nuts but shredded cheese, parsley or just plain works just as well. Whatever you like! Before I was married, I made a bunch of these and sold them to my sister's coworkers at Christmas. They loved them!

1 (8-oz.) package cream cheese
1/2 pound grated cheddar cheese
1/2 tsp. liquid smoke flavoring
1 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
1/2 tsp. onion salt
1/8 tsp. garlic salt

Mix all ingredients and beat well. A hand mixer works well for this recipe as does a food processor. Shape in to ball and roll in chopped nuts. Cover and store in refrigerator. Allow to soften a bit at room temp before serving. Serve with your favorite cracker assortment.

Makes 1 1/2 to 2 cups and serves 6-8.

Last but not least, I have a crock pot of Buffalo Chicken Dip to share.

I got this recipe from a coworker of my husband's. She makes this every year for the company Christmas drop-in. In fact, I'll get to eat some of her dip tonight. Yum! This is wonderful for football parties or a simple dinner at home.

5 cups cooked and shredded chicken
1 cup ranch dressing
2 cups shredded Mexican cheese
1 (8-oz.) package cream cheese
1 large bottle Frank's hot sauce(less if you don't want it too kickin')

Combine all ingredients in crock pot. Heat on low for several hours. Stir to combine every so often.
Serve with tortilla chips.

Head over to Kate's for more appetizer recipes!

The Stable-A Story of God's Provision

This morning, Monica shared a heart-warming account of how God recently provided for her wants in the form of a child-sized Pottery Barn chair.

She asked for her readers to share stories of how God has provided for them. I was reminded of my stable story which I had not shared on my blog yet. But what a great time of year to share this with my readers!

This was my comment on her post:

"God has provided so many times it's hard to keep track, which is why I like to chronicle these things on my blog-so we don't forget what God has done for us!

One story that I haven't shared yet on my blog happened last winter. This was not a need but a want.

I have a nice nativity set that I purchased years ago at the Pottery in Commerce, GA for $1.50. I've used this for a long time. In recent years, I decided that I really wanted a stable to go with it as the $1.50 set only included the figures. Last fall(2007), I saved some money to purchase a stable. I started looking around in October. Hobby Lobby had one but I really didn't like it-some parts were flimsy. Michael's right out and told me they didn't"carry that sort of thing." Well, honestly,after a bit, I kind of forgot that I was looking for a stable and had come to terms with my holy family being homeless another year.

The day that I was going to set up my nativity, we stopped at a yard sale(in December, mind you!) on a whim. As soon as I got out of the car, I spotted a table of the usual tacky Christmas decorations but something wooden and rustic was sitting in the middle. My husband says that he's never seen anyone move more quickly than I at the prospect of a bargain and I practically flew over there!

Sure enough, it was a stable and exactly the style that I was looking for. They had $2 on it, which it was definitely worth, but after counting my nickles and dimes, I found that I only had $1.50. I asked if they would take $1.50 instead and after a bit of hesitation, they were glad to.

We got in the car and drove home, me holding my precious stable. My husband asked as he always does after we've seen God provide, "You prayed, didn't you?" Which I had, but only at the beginning of my search as I asked God to direct me to the right place to find what I was looking for and then I forgot all about it.

God did not forget, however. As I put up my nativity set this year, I was reminded of how I came to have the stable, and how if God desired to gift me with a house for a set of ceramic people, how much more He desires to care for us as His children!"

We have seen God provide in tangible ways in the past few years. This has grown my faith and trust in God tremendously. God is not my personal Santa giving in to my every want and whim, but He does desire to provide "good things for His children." Luke 11:13

As I include God in my daily activities and ask for His guidance in all areas of life, I am much more aware of how He provides. It's noticeable when God provides in a tight spot but how about when He provides for me to have a decent sized grocery budget which allows us to buy really good food and more than we need, a roof over our heads when it's raining,central heat and air when it is very cold or hot? The things I take for granted and see every day are the very things that I should be thanking God for.

For a few more accounts of practical ways God has provided for our family, you can read all about the $5 chair, the futon and even my husband's need for a belt!

Psalm 37:4: "Delight yourself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart!"

Monday, December 15, 2008

Menu Plan Monday

Looking back to last week' menu, I made a couple of changes throughout the week. Instead of roasting a chicken, I tried this Rotisserie-style Chicken in the crock pot. It was super delicious! The juices made wonderful gravy, too! I had planned three chicken meals to use up the chicken, but we ate so much at the first meal, I only had enough to make a batch of chimichangas(enough for dinner and a meal's worth to freeze).

I didn't get to the Garlic, Chicken and Spinach Spaghetti. Instead, I filled the crock pot with a bunch of odds and ends of meat, rice and veggies-even some veggie broth- from my fridge and freezer and made a yummy vegetable soup that fed us for dinner one night and several lunches over the next few days.

I also followed the Crockpot Lady's instructions for making chicken broth in the crock pot. It was so great! I didn't have to worry about it boiling over on the stove. It just simmered all day.

I'm really loving the Crockpot Lady's blog, by the way! There are so many wonderful ideas and I love having my crock pot slaving away during the day preparing goodies for us to eat!

After baking Christmas goodies all of Saturday afternoon, my sweet husband took me out to Chili's for dinner. We had a coupon for a free appetizer and we split an entree. Sweet! The hamburgers that I planned for that night's dinner will reappear this week.:-)

Now this week, I'll probably only be cooking 3 or 4 dinners at home. I have 4 planned as well as a few lunches since I won't have as many leftovers since I'm not cooking every night. I'm also focusing on using food up as we'll be away for a few days next week!

1)chicken gravy on toast;peas
2)hamburgers,celery and carrot sticks
3)salmon patties, baked butternut squash,buttered noodles
4)scrambled eggs, toast, fruit

-- pork bbq** sandwiches(2)
--homemade pizza**(1)
--quick spaghetti(1)

--cereal, milk(2)
--bagels, cream cheese, apple slices(2)
--breakfast cookies**, smoothies (1)
--oatmeal, hard-boiled eggs, fruit(2)

**denotes ready-made freezer items

For more menu planning fun, visit Organizing Junkie!

Friday, December 12, 2008

Another Way to Simplify Christmas

After posting about how we are simplifying our Christmas baking this year, my husband and I were talking about what we each wanted for Christmas from each other. You know, getting ideas for sneaky Christmas shopping.

We were talking and all of a sudden one of us brought up, kind of tongue in cheek more than anything, the idea of not shopping for each other but rather taking the money we would spend on each other and pooling it together for a fun outing, experience or day trip.

We liked it. We'll still fill stockings for each other, which we both love to do, but we'll not do anything else in the way of gifts under the tree. You would not believe the stress that took off of me when we decided to do an "experience" gift instead of more shopping! My husband was relieved too. We do like to get each other gifts, don't get me wrong, this just seems like a great way to simplify this year!

Plus, it will give us something to look forward to during the more dreary winter months long after the gifts have been unwrapped. And it will be time spent together.

Now,we just have to figure out what we'd both like to do. We've tossed a few ideas around but haven't landed on a really exciting one yet. Even though, the amount we're spending isn't huge, I've become so accustomed to planning free or cheap activities that I'm not sure what to think of! Of course,we both love to eat, so we could go out for a very nice meal, but we really don't want to just eat our Christmas gift!

What about you? If you were going to plan a day out with your spouse and spend a reasonable amount of money, what would you do? I'd love to hear your ideas!

Christmas Happenings

I didn't plan for this week to be so sparse in the blogging department. I have a whole list of subjects to blog on and just haven't taken a few minutes to get them ready to post.

I focused this week on getting a lot of stuff finished for Christmas. I tend to leave things until the last minute, knowing what I need to do but with a list only in my head. My husband and I sat down at the beginning of the week and I wrote the main things down that needed to be accomplished on the corresponding day. That has worked!

What's been done:
--Christmas letter has been written. I can't quite justify just sending a card with postage as high as it is and we didn't have a picture to share this year. Plus, I always enjoy reading what others have been up to throughout the year, whether it is a form letter or a personal one.

--Christmas cards have been mailed with the Christmas letters. :-) Well, most of them. I still have a couple of new addresses to locate and a few people I forgot in the first round.

--Gifts have been bought. I'm making a few more but all shopping has been done for our extended families. We keep our gifts pretty simple and I was extra careful to stay in budget this year. I had a specific list and shopping was easy-peasy! I actually got almost everything at Target in about 1 hour of shopping! A first for me as I am not a speedy shopper!!! Of course, I had a few of the gifts already and I'm still making a few, but still....

--Gifts have been wrapped. The ones that are finished anyways! I let my perfectionist tendencies go by the wayside and kept this extra simple as well. I'm focusing on using up the same wrapping paper that I've had for the 4th Christmas now. I cut gift tags out of the wrapping paper for matching tags. No stamps, no stickers, no gluing on card stock-just simple wrapping paper tags cut into a tag shape with a hole for tying on. I used a plain tag from my craft box for a pattern and traced it on the wrapping paper. Took about 20 minutes for 30 tags. I tied all the gifts with raffia in Christmas colors that I had gotten on 90% off Christmas sales last year. I wrapped and tied and wrote the to's and from's last evening in about one hour-another record for me!

--Christmas donations have been made. I kept putting this off but it was done within 15 minutes by doing it online.

Still to do:
--Get Christmas tree. We want a small table top tree this year. Preferably a real one. We're going to the tree farm to look for a little tree this afternoon. Every year, we're looking for a little different style of tree to accommodate our needs . This keeps life exciting and is actually good, because we always forget what kind of tree we've gotten from year to year anyways.

--Bring in decorations and take fall decorations down. Yes, the pumpkin, fake leaf garland and bunch of Indian corn are still up. Please don't fine me!

--Christmas baking. I'm mixing all dough up today and we're baking tomorrow afternoon. This is simple too. I've pared down to 4 kinds instead of my previous simplified five.

--Christmas decorating. We're doing that tomorrow morning. It doesn't take us long but we enjoy doing it together.

--Clean house from top to bottom. I'm doing that today. I love to decorate in a clean house, with everything freshly vacuumed and dusted, windows sparkling and cobwebs out of the corners. Oh and fresh smelling trashcans...hopefully by tonight!!!

--Send packages. We'll be with Andy's family in Georgia for Christmas and also visiting my sister on the way. We have two boxes to send out-one to New York and one to Oregon. Talk about extremes! I'm aiming to get them out by Monday, since they are pretty much packed already!

What kind of progress are you making on your to-do list? Even with simplifying, this is one of the busiest(yet fun!) times of the year!

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

A Patriotic Little Side Business

Hi readers!

Andy here. I wanted to let you know about some great people that I recently got involved with. Products For Good is a company that offers patriotic products while generating money to help support our troops and their families. Particularly those who have been wounded in combat. Here's how it works. If you click on this link, it will take you to my Products For Good order page. Any products that you purchase will provide a little extra income for MaryAnn and me AND you'll be supporting our troops as well.

Let me try to give you a brief history of the company. In 2003, British and American troops were sent in to Basra, Iraq to secure banks and other key facilities. In the bank vaults were found approximately 6,000,000 uncirculated, decommissioned Iraqi coins. As it turns out, the coins were decommissioned in the mid-1990's because Saddam Hussein's face was not on them. He actually ordered the coins to be melted down when he replaced them with something that featured his face. The coins were later brought to the U.S. and were sold to the gentlemen who run Products For Good. With the sale of shadow boxes that feature the coins, as well as other military-branch specific products, they (we) are able to give to our troops and their families in times of need.

I have never served in our military. My disability prevented that from taking place. However, I have two generations of incredibly proud military service ahead of me in my family. I see Products For Good as a tangible way that I can finally serve my country. For those of you reading this post who are serving or have served, thank you for fighting for my freedom. For you civilians, thank a veteran. Of course I would love for all of you to purchase something from the site. But even if you don't, I encourage you to take a moment to think about those who make the sacrifice of fighting for our freedom.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Menu Plan Monday

I hope everyone had a wonderful weekend and is ready to dive into a new week!

Here's what's on tap for meals this week:
**denotes pre-made freezer item

B-breakfast cookies**, yogurt, banana
L-sweet and sour pork over rice
D-Caesar salad(a kit from the store-a coupon deal!), molasses cookies

B-eggs in a nest, banana
L-leftover sweet and sour pork, rice, cabbage salad
D-eating at leadership meeting

B-Baked oatmeal
D-roast chicken. mashed potatoes, gravy, green beans

B-leftover baked oatmeal
D-chicken chimichangas with sour cream & salsa, salad

B-breakfast cookies**, fruit smoothies
D-chicken, spinach and garlic spaghetti, salad, baked butternut squash

B-banana oat pancakes**
D-appetizers(not sure what yet but something fun for the holiday season)

B-bagels, cream cheese, fruit
L-leftovers or frozen pizza
D-hamburgers, carrot and celery sticks

For more menu-planning, fun, please visit Organizing Junkie!

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Simply Living Saturdays: The Christmas Edition

This week's edition of Simply Living Saturdays is about ways to simplify our Christmas celebrations and focus on what is truly important.

One way we have scaled back and simplified is to limit the amount of Christmas baking we do.

One of our favorite traditions as a couple is to bake Christmas treats together. It started out as a wonderful idea of spending part of a Saturday completing all of our Christmas baking. It ended up, even the first year, as taking a whole lot longer to do with me planning too much and then still frosting and decorating cookies late at night. It became a stressful day instead of the peaceful and enjoyable tradition we had envisioned.

Not to mention that we had way too many cookies and treats left over after the holidays.

Last year, I decided to pare my list down and make it more manageable. Instead of trying to make the same stuff just because that's what I had always done, we prepared my husband and I's top 4 or 5 favorites and left it at that.

It was a little more manageable but still took more time than we wanted. And instead of having too much, we ended up almost running out of treats to share! I do enjoy giving a few plates or bags of treats to friends and sharing them at different get-togethers throughout the season, so I like to have enough for that.

This year, we're spending an evening doing the Christmas baking. I've made a list of 5 favorites. I'm still not sure if we'll do the cut-outs as they tend to take the bulk of time. They are my very favorites, though, and would add a different flavor to our other three favorites which are all chocolate! When deciding what kinds to make, I try to pick out a variety that would look nice on a plate together as that is how I often serve them at get-togethers and parties.

Maybe if I baked the cut-out sugar cookies ahead and only did a small amount, then we'd only have to decorate them.

Another favorite which is quite time-consuming but so yummy is kiffles. This is from my husband's side of the family. We'd like to make some of those to take to his family at Christmas, but only if we really really want to! This would be in addition to our baking night.

So as you can see here, I don't quite have all this figured out. Simplifying and changing what you've been doing for years can be difficult!

So the list of treats that I'm planning to make now is:

1)chocolate-peanut squares
2)chocolate-mint cookies
3)chocolate-dipped pretzel rods
4)oatmeal raisin cookies
5)cut-out sugar cookies(maybe)

Doing less and really enjoying the traditions that we do participate in is what makes the Christmas season so much more enjoyable!

What kinds of treats do you like the most? How have you been able to simplify this fun holiday tradition?

Thanks to Stephanie for hosting Simply Living Saturdays each week!

Thursday, December 04, 2008

"Naptime" Freezer Cooking

I have always loved cooking ahead and having a number of yummy main dishes, sides and baked goods ready to pull out and use whenever I want them.

Lately though, it seems I just haven't been keeping up with stocking the freezer. Between working at home and being a homemaker, I have a lot of different activities on my schedule each day. I love to cook and bake(which is why I don't just buy lots of pre-made foods) but it becomes tiring to cook a meal from scratch each night. Especially when I know I can cook ahead and save some time here and there! Having meals made ahead also really helps with hospitality.

One of these days, I would love to spend a whole day cooking freezer meals, but until then, I'm going to carry on with what I've termed "naptime" freezer cooking. With some planning ahead, I can schedule a few things to cook or bake while my childcare kids sleep. Doing this once every other week or so will ensure me a nice supply of make-ahead foods! Whatever I've planned should take me no longer than 2-3 hours to prepare and sometimes only about an hour will be involved. Perfect for a naptime or evening in the kitchen.

As I go along, I'll be sharing recipes, tips and ideas for things to freeze. There will be a variety of entrees, side dishes and baked goods as well as preparing specific foods such as pre-cooking meats or shredding cheeses to aid in fast meals later.

Today, I made pizzas and twice-baked sweet potatoes to freeze. (Not all my combos will make sense.:-) I will plan what to make based on what I have on hand. It all comes together when I menu plan each week!)

I made a double batch of my pizza crust and ended up with five par-baked crusts. I froze 3 plain and froze the other two with toppings, ready to go. The finished pizza in the bottom right has a stuffed crust(cheese baked into the crust). The other one is just regular.

Sweet potatoes were on sale for $.39 a pound last week, so I bought about 10 pounds of them. I knew I'd want to cook some and freeze them before they spoiled and also to enjoy later in the winter. I put the potatoes in to bake at lunch time and by naptime, they were ready to work with. I quickly mashed them in my mixer and soon they were ready for the freezer! These will be great for a side dish with any kind of meat.

I almost always double wrap my food before freezing with plastic wrap and foil. I have pretty good success with items in freezer bags not getting freezer burn. I double bag all of my bread or rolls. If you're going to go to the effort of cooking, you certainly want the food to be protected.

Another key aspect of freezer cooking is labeling. A permanent Sharpie marker is one of my well-used kitchen tools. I mark right on Ziploc bags and use sticky notes(attached with tape) or labels to write the name of the food, directions on how to heat, and the date it was prepared. Guessing what a frozen food is can be very difficult as they seem to often look the same after being frozen! Also, if cooking directions are clearly marked, there is no need to pull out the cookbook. My husband will also know exactly how to prepare the food if I am away.

Happy freezing!

What kinds of foods do you like to stock your freezer with?

Twice-Baked Sweet Potatoes

My sister made these twice-baked sweet potatoes for the first time for our Thanksgiving dinner.(We had both noticed the recipe in the November '08 issue of Country Home magazine and really wanted to try them!) They were so delicious, I knew I would have to make them for my husband and I too. I was pleasantly surprised how simple these are to prepare.

Best of all, this is a great make and freeze ahead recipe! The picture in this post shows the sweet potatoes ready for the freezer.

Twice-Baked Sweet Potatoes

8 medium sweet potatoes(about 3 3/4 pound total)
1/2 cup butter, cut up
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper

Line a large baking sheet with foil. Prick each sweet potato twice with a fork and place on the prepared baking sheet. bake in a 425 degree oven for about one hour or until nearly tender. Remove from oven and let stand until cool enough to handle.

Cut each sweet potato in half lengthwise. Scoop out the cooked pulp from 10 of the sweet-potato halves, leaving a shell about 1/4 inch thick. Remove all the pulp from the remaining sweet potatoes, discarding skins. Transfer pulp to a large bowl. (I used my Bosch mixer.) Add the butter, salt and pepper to the pulp and mash with a potato masher(or mixer) until the mixture is fairly smooth. Add desired flavor options to the puree.

Use a spoon to fill the 10 shells with puree. transfer filled sweet potatoes to a large airtight freezer container. Cover and freeze up to 3 months.

To bake, remove sweet potatoes from freezer. Thaw overnight in refrigerator. Transfer potatoes to a foil-lined sheet. Bake in a 375 degree oven until heated through, about 40 minutes. Sprinkle plain sweet potatoes with ground cinnamon, if desired.

Makes 10 servings.


Maple-Pecan: (We had this version for our Thanksgiving dinner! Yummy, yummy! ) Stir 1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon into sweet-potato puree mixture. Fill and freeze as directed. When ready to bake, drizzle tops with 1/3 cup maple syrup and sprinkle with 1/4 cup finely chopped pecans.

Pear and Ginger: In a medium bowl mash 8 drained canned pear halves with a potato masher until nearly smooth. Add 2 teaspoons ground ginger and stir pear mixture into sweet potatoes. Fill, freeze and bake as directed. Sprinkle with 1/4 cup snipped, dried cranberries.

Manchego and Smoked Paprika: (I've never had this kind of cheese but it sounds great! I suppose you could substitute another kind of cheese for this.) Stir 1/3 cup finely shredded manchego cheese and 2 to 3 teaspoons smoked paprika into sweet potatoes. Fill and freeze as directed. When ready to bake, sprinkle tops with an additional 1/4 cup of shredded cheese.

Homemade Pizza

I love making our own homemade pizza. It isn't difficult once you master it and is less expensive than ordering out!

Even though pizza isn't difficult to make, I like to make extras and freeze them for busy times. Sometimes I freeze a completely prepared pizza and sometimes I just freeze the plain crusts. I love the convenience of frozen pizzas and it is cheaper and healthier to make my own. A frozen homemade pizza is just as quick to throw in the oven as a store-bought one!

Another benefit to making your own pizzas is the ability to customize them to however you like. Our pizzas generally consist of some combination of pepperoni, sausage, mushrooms, green peppers, and black olives. I also love making a pesto pizza with pesto spread on the crust instead of traditional tomato sauce and topped with yummy sauteed veggies.

The recipe that I use is a Taste of Home recipe from several years ago. I've tweaked it and made enough changes to the original recipe that I think I can safely call it my own!

I use my Bosch mixer to mix and knead my dough. This is a small enough recipe to be easily done by hand as well, which I have done a few times with great success.

This recipe makes two 12 inch pizzas. Making just two makes the crust quite thick, I think, so I usually end up making one or two personal pan size crusts along with the bigger ones. You can decide how you want to do yours!

Homemade Pizza Crust

1 package(1 tablespoon) active dry yeast
2 cups warm water(110 to 115 degrees)
3 tablespoons olive or vegetable oil
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
garlic powder, dried basil and oregano, to taste
2 cups whole wheat flour
2 -4 cups all-purpose white flour

In a large mixing bowl, dissolve yeast in warm water. Add oil, salt, spices, and whole wheat flour. Beat on medium speed for 3 minutes.

Stir in enough white flour to form a soft dough(not too sticky and not too stiff). If kneading by hand, be extra careful with the flour amount as kneading on a floured surface adds more flour into the dough.

If using a heavy-duty mixer, continue to mix for about 5 minutes or so. If kneading by hand, turn out on floured surface and knead until smooth and elastic, about 6-8 minutes.

Place dough in a greased bowl, turning once to grease top. Cover and let rest in a warm place for 10 minutes.

Divide dough in half. On a greased surface, roll each portion into a 13 inch circle. (I start the rolling process on my counter top then transfer the dough to the greased pan and use my fingers and this amazing roller to roll the dough right in the pan. )

Transfer dough to two greased 12 inch pizza pans; build up edges slightly. bake at 375 degrees for 15 minutes or until lightly browned. This step is called par-baking the crust.

Now, you can cool and freeze the plain par-baked crusts(double-wrapped in plastic wrap and foil) or you can top the pizzas and freeze the same way. To bake after being frozen, place on greased pan and bake at 375 degrees for about 20 minutes or until done.

Or if you decide you want to eat the pizzas right away(imagine that!), you will top the crusts as desired and bake for an additional 15- 20 minutes.

**For pizza sauce, I add a little grated onion, basil, oregano and garlic powder to an 8 ounce can of tomato sauce. This makes enough for 1 or 2 pizzas, depending how much sauce you like. I spread it right on the crust then top with toppings and cheese. This is the simple way to make sauce and we like it that way! My sister likes to cook her sauce a little and then spread it on. Or you can use jarred spaghetti or pizza sauce from the store. Whatever you like!

**The pizza pictured above is a stuffed crust pizza. To make, I rolled the dough our to reach a little over the edge of the pizza pan. Inside the edge of the pan, I placed small sticks of mozzarella cheese. You can also cut string cheese for this. I like to cut slits in the dough all around and then roll it in under the cheese stick for kind of a twisted crust look, but you don't have to cut the dough but just roll it under the cheese all around the pan. Bake as usual.


What kind of pizzas do you and your family enjoy?

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Yogurt In The Crockpot

I've been making my own yogurt for over a year now, using a small yogurt maker that I found at Goodwill.

I've often read about making yogurt in a warmish oven overnight and wanted to try it, mainly because I could make more than 1 quart at a time and also because I like to eliminate single purpose gadgets from my kitchen if at all possible.

Well, I hadn't gotten around to trying it in my oven but when I came across the Crockpot Lady's yogurt recipe, I just had to try it! You can make 2 quarts at a time(probably more if you wanted to) and it uses the crockpot which I already have.

This method of making yogurt is easy, easy too!

I tried it last week and sure enough, it worked! I was really nervous about whether or not the crockpot would be warm enough for the yogurt to culture, but it was!

I'll definitely be making yogurt in the crockpot again and again!

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Menu Plan Monday...on Tuesday!

One of these days, I will stop being a slacker and actually have my menu plan up on Monday like everybody else!

But until then, enjoy reading my menu on Tuesdays!

Except for a small bit of pineapple-lime cranberry sauce(which is exceptionally good, by the way), we've snarfed down all remains of our Thanksgiving dinner. This is not including large amounts of roast pork that is left, but is safely tucked away in the freezer to be used whenever I please. Some of it will be making its way into our menu this week!

B-cold cereal
L-white chicken chili (made with pork instead) in crock pot, sour cream cheese, salsa, tortilla chips,wheat rolls, chocolate cake
D- leftovers from lunch

B-scrambled eggs, wheat rolls, bananas

B-cold cereal, bananas
D- stuffing-stuffed acorn squash(my own concoction-can you tell?!, but it was really good!), salad

B-toast, smoothies
D-spaghetti, salad

B-eggs, toast
D-pork and veggie stir fry over rice

B-oatmeal with dried fruit
L- leftovers
D-homemade pizza, fresh veggies

B-muffins, fruit
L-leftover pizza
D-pancakes, scrambled eggs

To read more menu plans, visit Organizing Junkie!