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Posts Tagged ‘holidays’

I have purchased no eggnog this year.

Normally, I would be on my second carton by now.

When I first spotted cartons of eggnog in the dairy aisle a few weeks ago, however, it just didn’t seem worth the calories.

Part of this attitude, admittedly, results from attending boot camp at 5:30 a.m. three days a week. I’m not negating that much hard work with 6 ounces of sugar and fat.

Part of it, though, is the realization that eggnog is simply a nostalgic food for me, a trip back in time to childhood.

When I was a child, eggnog was something that I drank only at my grandparents’ house, and only in the days leading up to Christmas. We drank it out of these fabulous Santa mugs:

As my friends Kristen and Harold have noted, however, nostalgia can be burdensome. I can’t re-create those Christmas scenes, and I shouldn’t want to. Every day of the year gives us another chance to create NEW memories. Trying to redo the past, even the little pieces of it, can only lead to bitterness and disappointment.

My brother’s kids are going to remember that Tia always made red velvet cake pops for them at Christmas, and Tia’s going to remind them that, for little girls under 50 lbs., they ate an impressive number of the rich morsels. And in 20 years or so, I hope they come up with their very own tradition, leaving cake pops in the dust if that’s not really their thing anymore.

I’ll give them the Santa mugs, though, if they decide that eggnog is their thing.

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I got cake balls right this year. I followed Bakerella’s instructions, for the most part, but I also scouted around on a few other food blogs to try to improve on my last effort.

I discovered four secrets:

  1. Chill the undipped cake balls in the refrigerator for a couple of hours to get them firm enough for dipping. If you’re in a hurry and decide to pop them into the freezer instead, prepare for cracked cake balls. I only used the refrigerator for this last batch, and I had exactly ZERO cracked cake balls. More than half of the previous batch, which all went into the freezer so I could dip them more quickly, cracked within an hour after dipping. Plan ahead and leave yourself plenty of time.
  2. Put the refrigerated cake balls on lollipop sticks before you dip them into the melted chocolate coating. This technically turns cake balls into cake pops. Go with it. Dip the tip of each stick into the melted coating before inserting it into a cake ball, then put the cake balls back into the refrigerator for at least five more minutes. The lollipop sticks make the coating process a lot easier, and, if you heed the advice in steps 3 and 4, they give you a more professional-looking product.
  3. Melt the chocolate coating in the microwave if you like, but hold it over simmering water in a double boiler to keep it thin enough while you’re dipping the cake balls. This will make the dipping process go faster, since you won’t have to worry about thickened chocolate that has to go back in the microwave every few minutes. Maintaining the melted coating at the same consistency throughout the dipping process simply results in prettier cake pops, too.
  4. After dipping the cake balls in the melted chocolate coating and letting the excess drip off for a few seconds, drizzle the wet cake balls with colored sugar or sprinkles — if that’s your decor of choice — and stick the clean end of the lollipop stick into a sturdy piece of Styrofoam (you may want to poke tiny holes in it before you start so the sticks will go in easily). This eliminates the flat spot and messy melted chocolate spread on the bottom of the finished cake balls.

I covered the business end of most of the cake pops with a small, clear treat bag and secured it with a small piece of Christmas ribbon, quickly tied into a simple knot (you can also just use twist ties). This made the cake pops fancy AND portable and helped keep them fresh for the better part of a week.

I won’t lie. These take forever and a day to make, and you’ll be cleaning chocolate smears off your stove and countertop and sweeping colored sugar off your kitchen floor for days. But well-made cake pops are beyond delicious and will impress the heck out of most people. Especially the 5-year-old princess fanatics in your life.

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Update (2-9-11): You may want to hesitate to buy a Publix king cake this year. The king cakes I saw there today were absurdly flat, like somebody forgot to add yeast.

My blog stats indicate that people are eager to know whether the king cakes sold at Publix are worth buying.

Answer: They are, indeed. Publix king cakes aren’t going to compare to a masterpiece from Randazzo’s, but I assume if you’re close enough to New Orleans to get the real thing, you’re not looking for advice on grocery-store king cakes.

The first year we bought a Publix king cake in Huntsville, Alabama, the bakery folks told us they imported the unbaked cakes from someplace in Louisiana, then baked and decorated them at the store. Over the past couple of years, it seems like they may have discovered that a king cake is pretty much a giant French-bread cinnamon roll coated in colored icing and sugar, and they’re making their own version.

Publix may include mysteriously gigantic plastic babies in their king cakes, but they’re got the basics of the delicacy down: Publix king cakes aren’t overly sweet, they’re pretty and they’re big enough to serve a crowd at a fair price.

Buy one. You won’t be sorry.

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The “Do One Thing” series chronicles my yearlong effort to tackle one project every day to organize my life and home.

Day 2: I labored over whether I should include purchases in this challenge. As the sole board member, I voted “yes.”

When we were in New York City in early December, I saw this nifty little device in Pylones that allows you to stack up to 10 bottles of wine safely and efficiently. I realize that other people have wine racks on their countertops and walls and even on top of their kitchen cabinets, but proper wine storage demands protection from light and temperature variations. Thus, most of our everyday wine (“everyday wine” … we sound so sophisticated) is stored in the bottom of the pantry, far away from the stove and other sources of heat.

The bottles, however, tend to arrange themselves in a mishmash, no matter how carefully they’re initially placed. Any stacking at all requires something extremely heavy and unneeded to prevent rolling, and unstacked bottles rolling around on their sides waste a tremendous amount of vertical cabinet space.

Thus, when I saw the incredibly neat pyramid of wine bottles enabled by the Wine Stack, I pointed it out as just the thing we needed to fix the wine problem back home. My husband looked at it and declared that we would definitely figure something out when we got back.

I should have picked up the Wine Stack and carried it to the register, but what I didn’t realize at the time (yep, still learning after 15 years) was that his comment could be translated as follows: “I do not recognize this wine problem you describe; therefore, I shall forget this discussion in approximately 3 minutes.”

So, when I was trying to put the pantry in order last week after a round of holiday baking, I mentioned this solution we were going to figure out. The husband paused for a couple of seconds, and said, “I guess we should have bought one of those wine things while we were in New York.”

Sigh.

I ordered my Wine Stack on Sunday night, and I’m counting it as my second Do One Thing act of the year.

Day 3: I cleared off the piano bench, a hotspot for downstairs junk like books, magazines, gloves and scarves. Every house has a spot like this. Of course, now that I’ve swept it clean, I need to maintain a subresolution of keeping it clean.

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In cooking, imitation really is the sincerest form of flattery. I love it when someone else tries to replicate one of my dishes. I love it even more when that someone is my mother.

The husband and I have owned a George Foreman Grill for the better part of our marriage. (Actually, we’re on our second grill. The cats broke the first one about 10 years ago.) We used to cook burgers on it; its sole use lately has been to sear the occasional hot dog.

Last year, I saw a couple of comments on food blogs recommending the Foreman Grill as a fast, cheap panini maker. It makes sense: The device is, after all, simply two heavy sheets of metal that press together.

I made grilled cheese sandwiches with it. Blah. The only bread I tend to keep around is some brand or another of wheat bread, the kind that doesn’t go bad in four days since I don’t actually EAT bread every day, and the husband tends to like a PB&J on the weekends. It didn’t grill very well, Foreman Grill or not, partially because it didn’t really fit on the grill (it’s a smaller model).

Enter Earth Fare. Heading to the checkout one day, I saw a display of bread that stopped me in my tracks, bread that looked like it had been freshly made just to fit on the Foreman Grill.

I made an experimental sandwich when I got home, smearing honey mustard on two slices and bundling a small bundle of ham and cheese in between. Best panini ever.

When Mom was here for Christmas, the only kind of bread Earth Fare had left was two loaves speckled with pieces of olives. Best panini ever. (And I realize I have to stop saying that or my credibility is going to be shot.)

For lunch today, I grilled the last two pieces with a couple of slices of Havarti from Costco. Perfection.

More perfection: Mom texted me yesterday to let me know she had switched the plates out on her waffle maker to make sandwiches like mine. Ingenious.

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I have a ramshackle collection of holiday decorating accessories — when you don’t put up a tree due to extraordinarily inquisitive cats, you make do with whatever fits on the fireplace mantel. You also don’t buy many new items, since that mantel’s not getting any bigger.

I couldn’t let this golden burst of sparkle sit on the shelf, however, when I found it at the New Leash on Life Marketplace today. Only 25 cents, too, since all Christmas items were half off.

I’m not entirely sure it’s going back in the Christmas box after the holidays are over.

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True confession: I have never liked sweet potato casserole, that impostor of a side dish that shows up on the table every year at Thanksgiving. It always seemed more fitting as a dessert, but it in no way could compare to the pecan, egg custard or chocolate pie that sat in the kitchen waiting for the turkey to be cleared.

Sweet potatoes are put to much better use in pies; sweet potato pie, after all, tastes astoundingly like pumpkin pie.

(more…)

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I couldn’t decide whether this image was scarier in black and white or color, so I posted both versions. Calluna pointed out that the jack-o’-lantern seems to be giving a “death stare” to the fallen leaves. It’s always fun when somebody else finds something funny or poignant in one of your photos that you didn’t notice.

I’m off to buy the bag of emergency candy that my husband claims we have to keep on hand, just in case we get trick-or-treaters after three years of coming up empty. Methinks somebody has a craving for tiny Snickers.

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I don’t make pretty food. (I also don’t seem to be able to make pretty photographs of light-colored objects.) So why I zoned in on Bakerella’s Red Velvet Cake Balls several months ago is up for discussion.

Whatever the reason, I decided they were the perfect dessert for wherever I was going to spend Christmas. Red velvet cake, mixed with cream cheese frosting and coated in white chocolate, seemed to be the most festive food I could contribute.

I had seen plenty of attempted cake balls on last year’s holiday party circuit. Most were delicious, but they were also about the size of ping-pong balls, making them difficult to eat. Most also suffered from a common rookie mistake: The balls hadn’t been properly chilled before they were dipped in the chocolate mixture, and thus coverage was spotty. Picture big, unruly wads of cake with about 75 percent chocolate coverage.

From the moment I hauled out the mixer, I knew this project was going to turn into a big mess. My old, scratched-up countertop has lost any stain-guarding properties it may have ever had, so I had to be ever so careful not to drop any (OK, much) red batter. Luckily, I had food-safe disposable gloves in the cabinet, because I don’t think I could sell bright red palms as part of the charm on Christmas morning.

Part two of the mess was the actually coating of the cake balls with melted chocolate bark. Bakerella says to use a spoon to dip and roll each cake ball in the chocolate. This didn’t work out for me, and I was left with uneven coverage. A couple of comments on the post recommended using a toothpick for the dipping and rolling; this worked out much better, only it left a tiny hole in the top. A tiny hole that looked way worse after my futile attempts at re-dipping or filling. (I realize now that a little creative drizzling would have upped the wow factor substantially.) And if I didn’t remove the toothpick soon enough, it left a huge crack in the top, leading to a small pile of discards. Tasty, tasty discards.

The non-discards were also delicious. And I guess they looked good enough to eat, since I don’t have that many left.

I’m almost sad to see the holidays end, since now I don’t have much reason to turn the kitchen into my own experimental lab. My solace is the hope that the office Whistling Guy will take the Christmas songs out of his repertoire.

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My college roommate and lifelong friend Jennifer has always been the crafty sort. Whereas we could both always visualize how we wanted a project to look, she could actually make it happen, whether it was by sewing, painting, or just moving stuff around.  She can choreograph a color guard routine or a complete house redecoration with little stress.

We rented a house together for 1.5 years, and we had the coolest Christmas tree of all time. Jennifer procured a dead, leafless sapling that we decorated for the holidays.

We were all about the avant-garde.

(We were apparently also all about the not-taking-pictures-of-our-own-stuff. While others took photos of our tree of awesomeness, we don’t seem to have any visual records of it.)

Given her creative flair, it wasn’t surprising when she broke out the arts and crafts supplies one night and informed me that we were going to make scrap angels for our tree – one for each of us.

She also broke out the wine.

We were, at the time, given to purchasing the largest bottle of Riunite Lambrusco that we could find for our parties, drinking as much as we wanted during the festivities and saving the rest for wine spritzers (made with Sprite, if I recall).

I don’t precisely remember the scrap angel-making process, but I do remember a lot of pouring and giggling, an exhausting amount of pouring and giggling, and at some point one of us said something along these lines: “Why don’t we just make one angel with two heads instead of two angels?”

Genius, right? One angel, two heads – one for each of us.

It certainly seemed like a good idea until the next morning, when we awoke to discover a TWO-HEADED ANGEL ON TOP OF THE CHRISTMAS TREE.

I think Jennifer quietly made two angels to replace the polycephalic messenger we mistakenly manufactured – no need to involve the craft-averse again – and all was well and much less weird in time for our Christmas party.

I miss those days of wine and giggling. I even kind of miss the creepy two-headed angel. Maybe I have some old pillowcases I can cut up  tonight …

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