My Mantra for the Week: “It’s the Little Things”

Christmas is six days away. I haven’t wrapped a single child’s present. I have gift baskets to assemble. And I had planned to have my kids round up their toys again so that we could purge some of the old ones before the new ones arrive. That last one probably isn’t going to happen until after Christmas. I decided to make my life easier by crossing off and postponing some nonessential things on my “to do” my list. I’m doing it to make time for the little things. My kids. This blog. Holiday movies with the family. Baking cookies, making crafts and playing games with the kids.

The stamp you see above came from Michael’s. It literally jumped out at me while I was fussing at London for trying to reach out and grab things off the shelves. We were at the 4th store, in search of a particular kind of label when I found myself on the stamps aisle. Just as I was getting into the “this is the part of the holidays I hate” spirit, I saw it. Just in time. I love inspirational quotes and phrases. It must have something to do with my love of words and meaning. They are like poetry or mantras to me. And that was my mantra for the day. “It’s the little things.”

So here are some little things from my week:

These orange, clove and cinnamon stick pomanders were fragrant and pretty. I found this little project while searching for craft ideas for Linsey’s class party. I was in search of something natural and fun. No foam or plastic and something that won’t break the bank, after all I usually end up paying most of the costs for these parties. A box of clementines, enough for a class of 25 and then some, was $5.99. The cloves, which I bought in bulk at Healthy Home Market cost me about $11.00 and I have a ton leftover. And I already had cinnamon sticks, ribbon, rubber bands and skewers (for poking holes and sparing little fingers) on hand. I also purchased wax paper bags to give the kids something to put them in when we were done. The entire box costs maybe a few bucks and we only needed half. So this craft costs around $20 for a class of 25. I heard one of the kids say that this was the best school party they’d ever had. Music to my ears.

It’s the little things, so we made homemade dark chocolate peppermint bark this year for the girls’ teachers. I used Trader Joe’s white morsels this year and instantly regretted it. Nestle’s Premier White Morsels are better tasting for sure. Even better than Ghiradelli’s white morsels, though Ghiradelli’s dark chocolate chips are great. They were still good of course, but not as good. Oh and if you are making them in a large sheet like I did, cut them into squares when they are firm all the way through, but still soft enough that they don’t chip and break when cutting. Think room temperature. Want to know how I know this? Last year I left them in the freezer for over an hour and every time I made a cut, they simply shattered. I ended up with a pile of irregularly shaped chunks of all sizes. What a disaster. And I recommend the chalky peppermint sticks instead of real candy canes. I can only find them at my least favorite store (a.k.a. Walmart) in the holiday baking aisle this time of year. They are easier on the teeth, the knife and the food processor. Dark chocolate, white chocolate and peppermint… yummy.

Bosky Acres, the goat cheese vendor at my favorite local farmers market usually sells these delicious pistachio and cranberry cheese balls around the holidays. She didn’t have any the week that I needed them, so I made my own. It was so easy, that I think I’ll always make them myself from now on. I used goat cheese from Trader Joe’s because I didn’t have enough of her goat cheese (which is waaaayyyy better in quality and taste). The shelled pistachios and organic cranberries also came from Trader Joe’s. All I did was chop 1/4 cup each of the nuts and cranberries together, rolled the cheese in the cranberry-nut mixture and pressed the pieces firmly in place. Simple. It’s the little things.

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Molasses Cookies, Royal Icing and Natural Food Coloring

The cookie jar is full.

No wonder we put on extra pounds every year during the holiday season. Last week it was apple cobbler, and this week it’s homemade gingerbread cookies. Sheesh! What is it about this time of year and homemade goodies? And I haven’t even gotten around to the dark chocolate peppermint bark and white chocolate coated popcorn yet. Maybe if we stop saving these homemade treats for the winter months and spread them throughout the year. Who says you can’t have peppermint bark in July? Why not make a couple of batches of cookies to share in the spring? I know the answer. Tradition. The girls and I look forward to cookie decorating during the holidays. We had hours of fun and there was no fighting and bickering for the duration. We all needed a break from the quarreling.

The cookies are Molasses Sugar Cookies and not gingerbread cookies, though I’m not sure what the difference is. The molasses cookies might be a little softer. But I found that if I cooked them a few minutes longer, they darkened and hardened a little. They were good either way, but the softer ones break easily. Click here for the cookie recipe. I used 2 1/2 cups of whole wheat flour and 1 1/2 cups of all purpose, and instead of shortening I used 3/4 cups of leaf lard and 3/4 cups of real butter. Next time I’ll use all butter just because it tastes better. Refrigerating the dough for hours is not necessary if you just use cold butter in stead of melting it as the recipe instructs. I do refrigerate between batches and recommend it if you are planning to roll it out and use cookie cutters. The first two batches were rolled into  balls and half of those were tossed in sugar.

I refrigerated the rest of the dough overnight and we finished up the following evening. No sugar coating was necessary since we were going to cover them in icing and candy.

London’s cute little cookies were covered in globs of icing and carefully placed pieces of candy. Yummy.

Haleigh, a budding artist, let her creativity fly. She’s a neat little artist.

Linsey, a budding perfectionist, wanted to make sure icing was evenly distributed on her cookies. I have to say though, that the icing is the glue that is keeping her cookies from crumbling to pieces in the cookie jar. This cookie’s head fell off, but the rest is still intact.

Let’s talk about the icing. Royal icing is considered the best type for decorating cookies because it dries and hardens quickly. Some recipes call for meringue powder, cream of tartar or powdered egg whites – things I don’t normally have on hand. How about you? Here’s my simple and easy recipe:

Easy Royal Icing

Ingredients:

  • 2 egg whites
  • 3 cups powdered sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract (or extract of whatever flavor you want to impart – lemon, peppermint, almond etc.)

Method:

  1. Beat egg whites in clean, large bowl or stand mixer at high speed until foamy.
  2. Gradually add sugar and lemon extract. Beat at high speed until thickened.

This made twice as much as we needed, so you might want to cut the recipe in half. Of course you can just use the white icing. Coloring isn’t really necessary since the candy is colored. We generally try to avoid artificial coloring. We did however have some artificially colored candy lying around so we used that, along with some mini-chocolate chips. But I don’t ever use or buy artificial food dyes. I attempted to try and color some of the icing naturally – purple, using juice from some frozen blue berries and pink, using juice from a large handful of pomegranate arils. (Who says Christmas cookies have to be red and green?) The results were not that great. I ended up with two shades of pale pink. Pretty, but not very vibrant. There are better ways, I know. But I was lazy.

And they were a little runnier, even though I added quite a bit more powdered sugar. My guess is that the acid from the fruit broke down the stiffness in the whipped egg whites.

Anyhoo, the girls loved the colors. My favorite are the ones with just chocolate chips. Chocolate chips and cookies belong together.

Grandma’s Number 1 Perfect Apple Cobbler

Grandma was right. This is definitely “Number 1 Perfect Apple Cobbler”. I don’t recall ever eating this cobbler made by Grandma. She lived out of state and we didn’t get to spend much time together. Maybe twice a year when I was growing up. Even less when I grew up and had a family of my own.  She passed away a few months ago. But my Grandma was something special. She wasn’t stuffy and prudish. Nor was she soft and gentle. But she was warm and fun. She was known to enjoy a couple of beers and she loved to play cards… and smile and laugh. She was in a bowling league for decades into her ripe old age. She was a ‘people person’. I will always remember her smiling, singing and dancing around. And if she wasn’t doing any of that, she was humming. Always. While she worked on her crossword puzzles. Or even when she was just strolling around the room, with one hand planted firmly on her hip. She was a ‘lefty’, and I swear there is just something special about lefties. I do miss her.

I stumbled across her recipe for apple cobbler a week ago. And what do you know? It’s apple season and I had a ton of them in the refrigerator. This apple cobbler was meant to be.

What I love about the recipe (besides that it’s damn good)  is the simplicity. It’s so quick and easy that you could be eating it within an hour of starting the recipe. And it only contains staple ingredients you would find in most kitchens. You don’t need any baking powder (something I frequently forget to restock) or corn starch. It’s just apples, a little lemon juice, sugar, flour, cinnamon, salt, eggs and butter. I followed the recipe nearly to the letter because I wanted to taste her apple cobbler. I only needed about 6 apples since mine were fairly large and I used the juice from one not so juicy lemon, which may have been more like 1 1/2 tbs. Her recipe also calls for “oleo”, which makes this recipe even more charming to me. Oleo is an old-fashioned term used sometimes for butter or oil, but usually for margarine. I used real butter.

I should also say that technically, this may be more of a “crumble” than a cobbler, just in case you are looking for a true cobbler recipe. I thought it was a little bit unusual that there was an egg in the topping. Most recipes only call for butter, flour and sugar in the dough. The egg though, is what gave it the extra crunch that I loved so much. I also love that the apple “filling” is just apples and a little lemon juice to keep them from turning brown. No milk or water to make it soupy. No flour to thicken it. No added sugar to sweeten it. Just apples!  (I say to you with both hands in the air! Do you know how happy this simple detail makes me?) I wouldn’t use Granny Smith or cooking apples for this recipe. It would probably end up too tart and too dry. But if that’s all you have then just add maybe a 1/4 cup of sugar and 1/4 cup of water or juice to the apples. They may also need just a few more minutes in the oven to get them nice and soft. I almost always prefer to use regular eating apples and cut back on the refined sugar in any recipe. I used mostly Golden Delicious and a few Pink Ladies that I bought from Matthews Community Farmers’ Market (my favorite source for locally grown food).

I’m not sure if any of you actually care about the quality of the ingredients that I use. But I have a feeling some of you might. So from now on I’m going to put my first choice for ingredients first and then, in parenthesis the more common substitute in a sort of sliding scale. If I use organic, obviously the regular stuff will work in it’s place. I won’t bore you with every detail on each ingredient, but I’ll share this with you instead. Most of my produce and the little bit of meat we consume comes from the Matthews Community Farmers Market. Everything is grown or raised within 50 miles and the produce is either USDA Organic, organically grown (without the costly USDA certification) or grown with minimal amounts of the safest pesticides or chemicals possible to save crops from complete devastation; and the animals are all raised on pasture. I am confident that this is true because these farmers and vendors feel as passionately about real, unadulterated food as I do. Some of them are members and supporters of Slow Food. The vendors and the patrons all care about things like sustainable farming and the humane treatment of animals. If they didn’t, they’d be selling at another farmers market. This is the best farmers market in the Charlotte/Matthews area, I assure you. Also I usually buy organic when it comes to these big three:  corn, soy and wheat products – to avoid controversial genetically modified food (GMO’s). I wouldn’t be as worried about these, IF they weren’t in the majority of the products found in grocery stores (in one form or another). So here we go:

Mabel’s “Number 1 Perfect Apple Cobbler”

  • 8-10 local, organic apples, peeled and sliced (mine were not organic, but no detectable residues were found on the fruit upon testing, obviously commercial organic or regular apples can be used)
  • 1 Tbs. organic lemon juice (non-organic is probably okay when it comes to citrus juice)
  • 1 c. organic evaporated cane juice  (I used 3/4 cup since my apples were sweet and because I always try recipes with 1/4 to 1/3 less sugar at first. 3/4 cup was enough for our taste. Organic sugar or regular sugar works fine.)
  • 1 c. King Arthur’s organic all-purpose flour (Local and organic is better if you can find it. Hoffner Organic Farms has some, but regular flour will work, whole wheat flour is probably okay too)
  • 1 tsp. organic cinnamon (non-organic cinnamon will do)
  • dash of real sea salt (any sea salt or regular table salt)
  • 1 local, pastured egg, beaten (organic, cage free or free range or regular eggs will work)
  • 4 tbs. oleo (butter), melted (I used Kerrygold unsalted, which is pastured, but imported from Ireland. Organic butter or ordinary butter will work.)

Method:

Pour lemon juice over apples. Mix dry ingredients and egg until crumbly. Sprinkle over apples in 5 x 9 baking dish (a 9″ square pan worked just fine for me). Drizzle with the melted butter. Bake at 375 degrees for 35 to 40 minutes. “You can use peaches instead of apples if desired.”  (I’ll remember that when peaches are in season!)