Friday, December 30, 2011

A Glimpse into 2012

I don't believe in resolutions mainly because they often don't work or lose their luster after the first month or two.  In fact, the only resolution I've ever kept was from the age of 12 - limiting myself to just 3 or 4 sodas a week instead of 2 or 3 sodas a day!  Flossing, daily crunches and eating more vegetables have all fallen by the wayside...  But I do love the thought of bettering myself as time goes on and starting the new year with manageable goals and ideas are the first step to doing just that!  So, I've comprised a small list of all the things I plan on doing in 2012.  And if they don't happen, no biggie, there is always 2013.

Traveling - to the east coast to visit my dad's hometown in Pennsylvania for the first time
Dating - finally ready to see what else is out there
Community Service - after taking a year to find myself again, I'm now ready to give to someone else
Blogging - to continue to share recipes, family stories and life with anyone who will read it
Reevaluating my Career -  time to find something that I love doing and getting paid to do it

Well, I'm getting antsy to begin this journey, so I already have the champagne poured and the streamers strung!  Let's all help celebrate the end of a great year and the start of an even better one.  Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Reflecting on 2011

2011 has probably been the toughest year of my life, but it's also been one of the best.  I struggled through my first breakup from a 5 year long relationship, I lost an amazing friend to differences, and have been shuffling through a job that doesn't interest me.  And despite all of these difficulties I've had to push through during this year, I've managed to discover the real ME by better connecting with my family, recognizing what I want in life and regaining happiness through the things I love to do like blogging, cooking, crafting and being with my loved ones.

Some amazing things have happened this year that have helped me put the pieces back together. I've witnessed my Grandma Kay miraculously recover from pneumonia and a major operation at the age of 95... I've explored the exciting realm of blogging (something I never knew anything about)... I've experienced the most educating trip in Washington DC with my sister... I've learned more about my family than ever before... and have celebrated the most special Christmas with my entire immediate family for the first time in many years.

Sometimes it's easy to think of only the negative but when you realize how much you've learned and gained from those sadder events and what you do to overcome them and better yourself, it really puts life into a happier perspective.  I'm very thankful for 2011 and what it has taught me.  And I'm even more excited to experience 2012 with new light, hope and courage.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Holiday Press Cookies

Christmas Day is over, but I'm still eating Christmas cookies galore.  Last Saturday, the siblings and I got in the kitchen once more to bake up some Holiday Press Cookies (also known as Spritz).  These buttery cookies are not too sweet and have a yummy punch of almond flavor.  Like all the other cookies I've made this season, this is another family favorite and annual tradition.  But this time it was extra special, because my brother paid us a visit from Big Sky Country.  I can't remember the last time I celebrated Christmas with him, and having him in the kitchen baking cookies with my sister and me is a memory I'll never forget.  In fact, he got us motivated and creative this time around.  Instead of using just the Cookie Press for these, we made free-form wreaths and candy canes!

What you'll need:

2 1/4 cups sifted flour
1/4 tsp baking powder
1 cup butter
3/4 cup sugar
1 egg
1 tsp almond extract
Few drops of green and red food coloring
Decorating candies
Crushed up candy canes
Cookie Press

Sift together the flour and baking powder.  Cream the butter and add the sugar gradually and cream thoroughly.  Beat in the egg and almond extract.  You can use vanilla if you don't like almond flavoring.  Gradually blend in the dry ingredients.  Separate the dough into thirds so you can add the food coloring.  One for green, one for red and the other is left plain.  Chill the dough in the fridge for about 15 mins.  This helps the dough to firm up a little so it will transfer through the cookie press easier.  Attach your desired press pattern and fill the cookie press with the appropriate colored dough.  Form the cookies on an ungreased cookie sheet about an inch apart.  Decorate with the candies, sprinkles, etc. and bake for 10 mins in a 375 degrees oven.  Makes about 6-7 doz.  

For candy canes:  Roll out the dough into thin strips about 18 in long on a floured board.  Place two colors together side by side and cut them into 3 in strips.  Slightly pinch each strip together and roll them out into 6 in strips.  Then twist the dough and mold it into a candy cane shape on the cookie sheet.  Bake for 10 mins. Cool the cookies slightly and then add the crushed candy cane candy on top. 

Since the cookie press comes with a variety of shapes, you can use this recipe all year round, not just for the holidays!

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Peppermint White Russian

A couple of weeks ago I was formally introduced to a White Russian.  Everyone has their drink of choice, and I am happy to finally say that I have found mine!  And this was perfect timing too, because I'm not a fan of eggnog and believe this to be a great holiday cocktail alternative.  So, to give it some extra festive flare, I put a peppermint twist on the traditional White Russian by simply dropping in a candy cane.  And it made such a difference!  A sweet coffee minty pleasure.  You know what I'll be drinking for the New Year...

What you'll need: per drink

1 jigger of vodka
2 jiggers of Kahlua
1/3 cup of half and half
1 candy cane

Fill your glass with ice, pour in the vodka, the Kahlua and then the half and half.  Plop in your candy cane and serve it to you guests as is.  Let them be the one to give it a stir with the peppermint stick, because the presentation is pretty before it's mixed!

Monday, December 26, 2011

Ugo's Eggplant Parm

The day before Christmas Eve was the anniversary of my Grandpa Ugo's passing.  I was three years old and unfortunately don't remember much about this talented man.  But I do remember his hugs and kisses and am happy to be left with at least that memory!  Luckily, Ugo lives on through my mom, especially through her authentic Italian cooking.  My Grandpa was a cook in the Navy during WWII.  His family owned a Pizza Parlor in Chicago and he later owned a deli in California.  My mom was smart enough to get in the kitchen when she was young to learn his secrets and finesse and she has been able to pass this down to me over the last couple of years.  So, to celebrate Ugo's life and cuisine, the family and I prepared his Eggplant Parmigiana.  We usually make Grandpa's homemade sauce for something like this, but due to the crazy holidays we simplified things.

What you'll need: 4-6 servings

2 eggplants
dried oregano
dried basil
1 jar of marinara sauce
freshly graded parmigiana cheese

Not everyone likes the skin on the eggplant, so we like to remove part of it to take away some of the bitterness.  Cut up the eggplant leaving each slice about 1/2 inch thick.  Place the slices on a baking sheet and brush both slides with olive oil.  Sprinkle some salt and pepper on one side of the eggplant and pop into a 375 degrees oven for about 30 mins or until the eggplant has soften and turned a light golden brown. 

Now for the fun part... the layering!  Let the eggplant slightly cool so you can handle them.  Place a thin layer of marinara sauce on a 9 x 13 inch baking dish.  Put a layer of eggplant on top of the sauce and sprinkle a healthy amount of parmigiana cheese.  Add some basil and oregano.  Then start again.  Put another layer of sauce, eggplant, cheese and spices.  Layer it one more time with just the sauce, cheese and spices and sprinkle a small amount of olive oil on top before you pop it into the oven again at 350 degrees for about 45 mins or until the cheese is nice and brown and the juices are bubblin'.

This tastes great hot or cold.  I like to eat this by putting a big dollop of the eggplant on some toasted french bread with a glass of vino.  Mmm

Friday, December 23, 2011

Crafty Wrapping

Aside from making cookies, wrapping Christmas presents are an absolute favorite Holiday activity for me.  Last night for a couple of hours I got crafty with the Christmas wrap and festive ribbon.  Yes, it's easy to just throw a bow on top, but this year I had a little extra time to do a bit more.  Not only do these pretty gifts make a colorful tree skirt but it shows your family that you gave some extra thought and love to their present.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

A Happy Winter Solstice

Last night at 9:30pm my family and I celebrated our first Winter Solstice.  Right on the dot, we all rang our bells to help bring in the new year that will be filled with more light and life.  We wrote down our wishes, lit them with a candle flame and tossed them into the fireplace for our wishes to be granted.  Our wishes were supposed to be kept a secret, but it's no secret that my Grandma Kay had a very serious operation this week, so my wish was for her.  And she is doing better everyday.

For those who don't know, Winter Solstice was actually celebrated before Christmas.  Since this day is the darkest day of the year, Pagans feared that light was never going to return... that they would not be able to grow their crops and eat due to the lack of sun.  So they prayed to their Sun God to bring back the light and would fill their homes with as much life and lights as possible... like trees layered with candles and Poinsettia flowers lining their tables and floors.  They gifted red presents that symbolized blood/life.  They made wishes to help them reflect on themselves and the important aspects in life like their family, health and relationships.  Eventually, the days grew brighter and they turned this celebration into a annual ritual.  So, yesterday, we all had fun partaking in this earthy holiday to help celebrate our environment and the loved ones around us.  Happy Winter Solstice!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

A Smorgasbord Tree

We all have our ways on how we want to decorate the Christmas Tree.  Madalene liked her tree prim and proper.  But my family likes more of a smorgasbord themed tree that consists of homemade ornaments, glass icicles, balls and knickknacks that we have collected over the last 60 years.  I have a few favorites that I always have to put on a Frasier Fur branch every year.  One includes an ornament that I made in preschool with glued on sequins and a pipe cleaner hanger.  Pretty fancy, huh?  My favorite part, of course, is the ridiculous picture the teacher took of me and my funky bangs.  That Holiday season I got a little impatient when my mother said she couldn't trim my bangs right away.

I even have to put up my mom's ornament that my dog, Nutmeg, chewed on when she was a puppy.  She is no longer with us, so this mangled ornament reminds me of how she came into our lives Christmas Eve in 1990.  The sweet Golden was a present from Santa and we found her under the tree in a box with a big red bow around her neck.  She was probably the best Christmas gift I've ever received and one of the best memories I have of the Holiday season.  

Do you find decorating the tree sentimental?  Where it brings back a bunch of old memories and fun family stories?  Funny how such a small object can rumble up the past.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Christmas Cookies: Part 2

Powdered sugar seemed to be the theme of this year's Christmas cookies, because it's also the star ingredient for today's Snowballs and Chocolate Crinkles.  There is just something about biting into a sweet cookie that is covered in sugary snow.  Betty Crocker does it right and if she's not in your kitchen giving you a helping hand with these cookies, then it isn't quite Christmas yet. 

What you'll need:  Snowballs

1 cup butter
1/2 cup sifted confectioners' sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
2 1/4 cups sifted flour
1/4 tsp. salt
3/4 cup finely chopped pecans

Mix butter, sugar and vanilla thoroughly.  Stir flour and salt together, blend in.  Mix in nuts.  Roll dough in 1 in. balls and place on an ungreased baking sheet about an inch apart.  Bake for 10-12 mins. in a 400 degrees oven.  Try not to let them brown.  While still slightly warm, shake the cookies in a bag filled with powdered sugar until fully coated.  Makes about 4 dozen.  Let cool and pop these puppies right into your mouth. We usually use walnuts but this year we tried the pecans and we're really happy with the change.  It makes the cookies slightly more moist and sweet.  But, hey, use whatever you'd like!

Chocolate Crinkles... a brownie in cookie form.  Chewy, chocolatey and sweet all in one bite.  These are fun to make but get ready for messy hands after rolling this dough.  You might want to use gloves.  

What you'll need:  Chocolate Crinkles

1/2 cup vegetable oil
4 sq. unsweetened chocolate (4 oz.) melted
2 cups granulated sugar
4 eggs
2 tsp. vanilla
2 cups sifted flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1 cup confectioners' sugar

Mix oil, chocolate and granulated sugar.  Blend in one egg at a time until well mixed.  Add vanilla.  Stir in flour, baking powder and salt into oil mixture.  Chill several hours or overnight because the dough will be sticky otherwise.  Drop teaspoonfuls of dough into the powdered sugar and roll until they form balls and are well coated.  Place about 2 in. apart on parchment paper lined baking sheet.  Bake for about 10 mins in a 350 degrees oven and watch them spread!  Don't overbake!  You want these soft.  Makes about 6 dozen. 

Monday, December 19, 2011

Christmas Cookies: Part 1

As promised, this weekend was filled with sugar, sugar and more sugar.  My mom, sister and I started off easy with a non-baked cookie filled with rum, chocolate, nuts and wafer crumbs - Rum Balls!  Unfortunately, I haven't been given permission to share my Grandma Jo's recipe, but here is a similar recipe from the Food Network.  Although, my recipe has melted chocolate chips in it to add some richness.  Let these cookies rest a couple days before you really dig into them because they're a lot like wine... they get tastier and stronger with age.  ;)

Next on the cookie agenda, Cheese Dainties, which I prefer to call Cherry Cookie Pies, because the dough is buttery and flaky like a pie crust! There is no sugar in the dough because the cherry filling and dusted powdered sugar is enough to sweeten up this cookie pie.  The dough is also filled with cream cheese so you'll also get a hint of tang.  Yum!

What you'll need:

4 oz. softened cream cheese
1 cup softened unsalted butter
2 cups sifted flour
1/2 tsp salt
1 jar thick cherry perserves
powdered sugar for dusting on top

Cream together the cheese and butter, and then add the flour and salt gradually; stir until well blended.  Divide the dough into two round discs, cover with plastic wrap and chill for about an hour.  Roll the dough out to about 1/8 in. thick on a floured surface.  Using a 3 in. biscuit cutter, cut out circles.  Place on an non-greased cookie sheet.  Put 1/2 tsp of cherry preserves in the center of each circle and fold over the dough to close up the circle.  With a slightly floured fork press down the edges together to seal.  Bake in a preheated oven of 375 degrees for 20 mins.   Makes about 30 cookies. 

Friday, December 16, 2011

The Cooky Bible

It may be sacrilegious to call this a bible, but for my family this is THE go-to book.  Christmas after Christmas it is our holy guide to making incredible holiday cookies!  Snowballs, Press, Thumbprints, Chocolate Crinkles... So, this will be the main agenda for this weekend which usually takes my mom, sister and I two days to complete, because we triple the batches, of course!  It's exhausting and labor intensive but it's tradition for the three of us to get in the kitchen and bake these sugary goodies while we laugh, bicker and tell stories. 

Aside from this, I have to squeeze in a Christmas Tree purchase plus decorating it, a holiday work party and more Christmas shopping.  Stressed much?  Just a tad.  See you Monday for a recap of my crazy nonstop weekend.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

A Christmas Mantel

We have a new mantel this year and I wanted to showcase it by putting up a strand of fresh garland and our Christmas stockings!  Since my parents bought the house, we've had this 2 inch wide stub of a mantel that you couldn't do anything with.  So when we remodeled the living a couple months ago, I suggested we finish the room off with a decent accent to complete our fireplace.

I enhanced the garland with glittery pine cones to give it some sparkle and cheer!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Homemade Holiday Gift Bags

Every Holiday season, my artsy Uncle Jim Sarno makes his own wintery wrapping paper with snowflake stencils, spray paint and glitter.  So this year, I decided to get inspired and try it myself, but using brown paper bags instead.  That way this pretty package can be used year after year. 

With my cricut machine, I cut out different sized snowflakes to use as stencils.  I also purchased a bundle of brown paper bags and spray paint: blue, baby blue, silver and gold.  

Place the snowflakes on top of the bag and spray the paint about a foot away directly over the stencils (at an angle will blow the stencils away).  Spray the leftover brown areas with gold and silver, to give a shimmery glow.  This is a good alternative to glitter which is messy and keeps popping up all over the house weeks later!  You can still have a similar shiny effect with the silver and gold paint.  

If you still want that touch of glitter, you can find glittery floral pieces at your local craft store.  Tie it around the handle with some ribbon.  Stuff your present with colorful tissue paper for the final festive touches.  

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

"Everything But The Kitchen Sink" Cookies

Oatmeal.. Chocolate Chip.. Marshmallow.. Walnut.. Cookies!  Found this recipe in Hometown Cooking by Julie Veith.  Not to much to say about these little guys.  The closest thing you can get to eating cookie dough.  They're chewy, gooey and fantastic!  Just look at the melting white marshmallows.  Heaven. 

What you'll need:

1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
1 cup butter
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 eggs
1 1/2 tsp. vanilla
2 1/2 cups quick oats
1 1/2 cups coarsely chopped walnuts
1 1/2 cups mini marshmallows

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.  Coat cookie sheets with nonstick spray, set aside.  In a mixing bowl, combine flour, baking soda, and salt, set aside. In a large mixing bowl, beat butter with an electric mixer on medium to high for 30 sec.  Add brown and granulated sugars.  Beat until combined.  Beat in eggs and vanilla until combined.  Beat in flour mixture.  Stir in oats, chocolate chips and walnuts.  Fold in the marshmallows.  Roll the dough into 1in. balls and place on the cookie sheet 2 in. apart.  Bake for 10 min. Let cool on the sheet for 2 min and transfer to a wire rack and let them cook completely.  Makes about 3 doz. 

I baked mine for 8 mins because I like a softer cookie.  Helpful hint... make sure you only have about 1 or 2 marshmallows in each ball and hide them in the center of the ball.  I found this helps the marshmallows stay better contained in the cookie instead of being exposed to the direct heat of the oven and spreading out into a messy spread out blob of a cookie! 

Monday, December 12, 2011

Ambrosia Fruit Salad

Yesterday was my Grandma Kay's 95th birthday!  This is my dad's mom and the only true grandparent I've had in my life. We have bonded over old movies, Neil Diamond, crocheting, kitties and dessert!  And a recipe that has stuck with me that she used to make time and time again is Ambrosia Fruit Salad.  She often made this sweet side dish for the holidays and as an extremely picky kid, I usually had a small pile of corn, a roll and a ginormous scoop of this colorful fruit on my plate for Christmas.  I've come a long ways since then, but I still had to have three helpings of this yesterday!  Since she now lives in a convalescent hospital, she can no longer cook for herself and is often quite dissatisfied by the food they serve her.. so for her bday dessert, I made her Ambrosia Fruit Salad.  She ate more of this than her lunch!

What you'll need:
Big can of fruit cocktail
Regular can of pineapple chunks
1 cup of mini fruit flavored marshmallows
1 tub of lite cool whip

Thoroughly drain the fruit cocktail and pineapple.  There is pineapple in the fruit cocktail but that's not enough for me, so I add a can more!  In a medium size bowl, toss in the fruit and fold in the cool whip and marshmallows.  Make it pretty by topping it with maraschino cherries!

Friday, December 9, 2011

The Ultimate Sangwich

My Grandpa Ugo, Madalene's son-in-law, loved sandwiches.  Or shall I say sangwiches, which is what he always used to call them.  He once owned a wonderful Italian Delicatessen in the Valley, called Sarno's Deli & SanGwich Shop.  Unfortunately, I was never able to visit because he passed away when I was very young.  And his incredible Italian cooking is something that I will never get to experience in this lifetime, but luckily I have my mom, aunt and uncle who have inherited his authentic cooking skills and recipes.  Although, my mom always says, "It still doesn't tastes like Grandpa's"!

So, because his deli is no longer around, we have found a great substitute which I've mentioned before, called Claro's Italian Market.  They have the freshest cold cuts that make the most delicious sangwiches!  Can you taste it now?... buon gusto salami, pistachio mortadella, capicola, lemon pepper turkey, provolone cheese and Girard's Italian dressing all nestled between two slices of toasted French bread.  Yup, that's my kind of sangwich and Grandpa would have approved...

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Fillable Ornaments

Ornament making can be time consuming but this year I decided to go simple and easy (but still elegant!) by using plastic fillable ball ornaments that I found at the craft store.  I wanted them to be festive, crafty and colorful... like me :) ... so I filled them up with bows and curled ribbon.

All you have to do is take one half of the ball, fill it with small bows and/or curled ribbon so it overflows a bit and close it up with the other half. 

Finish it off with a pretty ribbon so it can hang on your tree!

We don't have our tree yet, so I've hung them on the fireplace mantel for the time being. 

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

"Chitalian" Cruelers

One of Madalene's most cherished cookies were her Italian Cruelers.  My mom, aunt and uncle would gather in the kitchen and watch her roll out the dough perfectly thin so that you could see light coming through it!  But since then, my family has put a different spin on the original recipe that turned out to be better than my Great Grandma's cookies.  I hope she's not looking down from above reading this confession...  But, because they're fried, my Uncle Jim thought the dough was a bit on the greasy side, and frankly nobody in the family has the strength to roll out the dough as thin as Madalene used to do.  So, one day the idea of using egg roll wrappers instead of dough popped into his head!  The once slightly dense cookie turned into a light and crispy wanton-like sweet delight!  And for the last 30 years, we've taken on the new and improved family recipe that I've decided to call Chitalian (Chinese/Italian) Cruelers.  Try these cookies out for the Holiday.  The powdered sugar gives them a festive snowy look!

What you'll need:

1 pack of egg roll wrappers
1/2 in. canola oil filled frying pan
honey for drizzling
powdered sugar for dusting
ravioli cutter

 With your ravioli cutter, cut each egg roll sheet into 4 strips.  Cut a 2 in. slit in the middle of each strip.  Loop one end of the strip into the hole you just created and pull through once to form a twist.  Once the oil in your pan is hot, place four strips at a time into the oil.  After about 30 secs. or until slightly golden brown, flip over for another 30 secs.  Drain the cookies onto a paper bag to get rid of any excess oil.  Let cool.  Right before serving, drizzle these puppies with warm honey and dust them with some powder sugar.  They're so light I can't just eat one... But don't laugh while you're eating these because whoever you're talking to at the time will be covered in sugar!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Simon's Cat

I know I'm a bit late on discovering Simon's Cat, but I just have to share the Holiday/Winter episodes that I can't stop watching over and over again.  These literally make me laugh out loud!  Having three cats helps me relate to this silly kitty.  May I take him home?

Monday, December 5, 2011

Peanut Brittle

Back in the 70's when microwaves were becoming the next popular phenomenon in the kitchen, my mom began taking microwave cooking classes to learn what foods she can prepare and make in this new machine for the family.  And the yummy recipe she took away from this class that she still uses today is Peanut Brittle!  This method is so much easier and faster than making on the stove and it tastes just as good, maybe even better.  This homemade candy makes perfect Holiday gifts for your friends and family!

What you'll need:

1 cup sugar
1/3 cup white Karo syrup
1 cup dry roasted lightly salted peanuts
1 tbsp. butter/margarine
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 tsp. baking soda
Foil covered baking sheet

These steps require you to be quick on your feet so the ingredients don't settle and harden... help yourself be prepared by getting all your ingredients measured out and ready before you start.

In a 2 qt. mixing bowl, mix the sugar and syrup together.  Place in the microwave for 3 mins. on high.  Remove from the microwave and add the nuts and stir.  Put it back into the microwave for another 3 mins. on high.  Remove from the microwave and add the butter and vanilla and stir.  Place back into the microwave one more time for 1 1/2 mins. on high.  Remove and add the baking soda and stir quickly until light and foamy (about 15 sec.).  Pour at once onto a foil covered baking sheet and spread evenly into a thin layer.  Let cool for about 20 mins. until hard and break into small pieces.  Store in a closed container. 

Friday, December 2, 2011

Holiday Playlist

My Christmas isn't complete without a few of my favorite Holiday CDs.  And I just cannot get through December without listening to Karen Carpenter's soothing voice as she sings "Merry Christmas, Darling" (may she rest in peace)...  or the Peanut's cast as they chant, "Christmastime is Here"!  Yay, it's December and I can now officially celebrate the Christmas season by popping into my Bose some of my favorite Christmas music.  

What's on your Holiday Playlist?!

Christmas Collection by the Carpenters
A Charlie Brown Christmas
Home Alone composed by John Williams
How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966)

The Nutcracker by Tchaikovsky
White Christmas by Bing Crosby