Thursday, December 31, 2015

Sugar Cookie Central

Have you ever had that terrible moment of panic when you can't find your wallet? Your heart's in your throat and you're an absolute mess until you finally find it? That's what happened to me the other day, only it had nothing to do with a wallet. It had to do with a recipe card. Why the drama fest, you ask? Because it was no ordinary recipe card- it was the one for Lynne's Perfect Sugar Cookies.
See that cutie patootie all the way to the left with the great dangly earrings? That's Lynne. We've been friends forever - as in,  when I only had one kiddo kinda forever. But even before we were friends, I was using her sugar cookie recipe. Back then, she and my sister were in the same MOMS group at our church. Christi had somehow gotten a copy of Lynne's recipe and was baking up a batch of these cookies while I was over there one day. They turned out crisp and delicious, with smooth tops- perfect for decorating. So naturally, I promptly stole a copy of that recipe and have been using it ever since. They are that perfect. So perfect in fact, when I couldn't find the card the other day, I almost started crying. No joke, I Literally. Almost. Cried. Thank goodness I found it because otherwise, there'd have been no point in even making cookies this year. I'm just loyal like that.
Here's that recipe card from forever ago. It's a breeze to throw together, so I'll spare you the step by step photos. I usually double or triple this recipe, and it always turns out perfect (hence the name). Just make sure it chills for at least an hour before you roll it out and you'll do fine. 
After drafting Colleen as my sous chef, my table looked like this after a couple of hours. The cookies were completely cool to the touch and ready to go. See what I mean about the surfaces being perfectly smooth? There was not a crack or bubble to be found on these babies and that made decorating them a breeze. Super bonus? They're also crazy yummy.
 Full disclosure- there's no way around it, decorating cookies is messy work. You're gonna get food dye on your fingers- guaranteed. Sprinkles will end up everywhere and you'll probably find royal icing adhering your tablecloth to every surface it touches. My best advice is to just roll with it. Do yourself a favor and wait until the end of this adventure to try and clean everything up. Otherwise, it'll feel like shoveling snow in a blizzard. 
 Royal icing is the only way to go when decorating sugar cookies. It's easy to use and dries hard (like candy). In case you missed it last week, here's how you make it. Once it was all light and fluffy, I divided it into bowls and added some food coloring. I like using gel food dyes because the color is more intense and it gives you more bang for your buck. Be careful, though, this stuff can get everywhere if you're not careful. Trust me on this, people. One year, I had to go to Mass with so much red dye on my hands, it looked like I'd just robbed a bank. Nothing says holidays like felon hands. It's best to use a toothpick to measure out the dye and just toss it when you're done. Keep mixing the icing until all the streaks are gone.
Then I frosted each cookie like this.  I know this isn't the "official" way to base coat cookies with royal icing, but it's what I do each year. I use my offset spatula and just slap it on there. Why?

1) Because I wasn't given the gift of patience 
2) I don't think it makes that big of a difference if the base coat is less than mirror smooth. 

By skipping the "flooding" step, it saves me hours (literally hours) of work time and a large measure of my sanity.
Here they are- first step all done.
I put any left over base coat icing in the disposable piping bags. Because it hadn't been thinned out for flooding, it was the perfect consistency for piping. This meant I didn't have to make another separate batch of royal icing for decorating. Score one for the mama!
My kiddos are always such a huge help when it comes to cranking out these babies. When they were younger and I first started letting them decorate cookies, I used to obsess on making sure they "did it right". I was so focused on having the cookies turn out a certain way, I kinda sucked all the joy out of the project. Here's the message I wish I could send to Younger Cindy: Let them do their own thing, girl. You will be amazed at what they come up with and you'll end up loving their cookies best.
Case in point, look at that house shaped cookie at the bottom of the cooling rack with the square glasses. I never would've thought of doing that and I love how it's so goofy and cute.  Or that smiling white bell with the red hula skirt- because, as the red headed kid would say, "mele kalikimaka, Mom". 
Here's how it looked when we were all done- my kitchen table acting as home base for a menagerie of cookies. We had pretty ones, funny ones, kinda messy ones, sprinkle overloaded ones, and (of course!) the mandatory pirate one. After all these years, here's what I've finally learned.  A cookie, a lot like life in general, can be amazing without being perfect. And that's why it's so sweet.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Gingerbread House That Wouldn't Let Me Sleep- All Done!

First things first. I hope y'all had a fabulous Christmas and have recovered from the wonderful chaos the day always brings. In the spirit of the season, and more likely because I don't want it to be over, I've made a decision. Historically, Christmas was celebrated for twelve days- starting on December 25th and running until January 6th. Because I'm all about historical accuracy (*cough, cough*), I feel it's my civic duty to carry on this tradition of The Twelve Days of Christmas. So,until the 6th rolls around, I'm still going to be posting about "Christmasy Stuff". I knew you'd understand and support me- that's why I adore you.
So here's where we left off with my gingerbread house. Everything is hot glued together to industrial wall strength standards. Ain't nothing gonna break off this baby. Now for the fun part- decorating!
 Royal icing is really the only way to go here, folks. It's a type of frosting made with egg whites that dries rock hard (like candy). This is a good thing because it keeps all your hard work from being smudged as the days go by. Here's what I use- Wilton's Meringue Powder (another term for dried egg whites). It works like a charm and that way I don't have to do the whole slimy egg white separating thing. The royal icing recipe comes with every can, so just follow the steps and it'll turn out perfect.
Here's what the royal icing looks like when it's ready to use. It takes about 7-9 minutes to beat it to the right consistency, so if you have one, your KitchenAid will be a godsend here. I ended up adding one extra tablespoon of water to my icing to get it just right. Don't worry if you have to do the same, your icing will still dry nicely on your gingerbread house.
I folded back the cuff of my piping bag and loaded it up about 3/4 full. I've used disposable piping bags in the past and, without a doubt, they rock! So much easier when it comes to cleaning up. Unfortunately, I forgot to replenish my stock from last year. No worries, I still had my cloth bags and they were willing to step in.
Just like I promised, this #18 star tip did a dynamite job covering up all that hot glue.
I love how royal icing sticks exactly where you put it. Even though I was piping under the eaves, not a bit of it slid down or dripped onto other parts of my house.
Ta Da! Now that the basic work was all done, it was time to get down to business.
As you can tell - I used my ruler and spent many hours making sure the shingles all lined up perfectly - NOT! I just got after it and used some clear sugar sprinkles on the roof to give it that "snow covered" look.
Here's where I'm keeping it real. I wasn't totally loving my window on the door - in the kindest of words, it looked wonky. And the heart didn't look anything like the cute one I was envisioning in my brain. I was distracted,thinking these deep thoughts, when I accidentally smooshed the side of the door with my hand.
 This is why I love working with royal icing. It's very forgiving when it comes to this kind of drama. All I had to do to fix it was take a butter knife and gently scrape off everything I didn't like. It was almost as if it had never happened.
And I was able to do this instead. I ended up liking this version of the front door so much better and you can't even tell where I patched everything up. I'd like to see Bob Vila try and top that kind of skill.
And here she is in all her glory. It's been over ten years in the making, but I have to say, I love how it turned out. I've noticed something, though, in the past few days since I finished this house. New Jersey humidity is a factor I hadn't considered when making this baby. The walls seem to be "soaking" it in and bowing a little bit under the weight of the roof. When making these in the future, I should probably reconsider the overall pattern and add some kind of internal structural support. Either that or make sure I buy my hot glue sticks in bulk.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

The Gingerbread House That Wouldn't Let Me Sleep

Have you ever had one of those times when you were powerless to keep an idea from rolling around in your brain? There you are- lying in bed, trying to fall back asleep, but after a while it becomes obvious. It's a lost cause - you should just get up. That's what happened to me the other morning. Thoughts of plans for my gingerbread house would not leave me alone, so I finally quit fighting it and went downstairs to get busy. It was driving me so bonkers in fact, I didn't even waste time changing out of my pajamas. Here's how it all went down. 
In order to get the size house I wanted (humongous- of course!), I had to make my own pattern. I've found using leftover cardboard is best for this job because it's sturdy and easier to work with than paper or posterboard.
I cut everything out and made sure all the sides lined up the way they should. I ended up having to redo a few of the pieces to get the roof line the way I wanted, but that took no time at all.
Once I'd tackled the pattern, it was time to make the gingerbread dough. I use Krusteaz for all my gingerbread houses because it's easy to work with and the surface of the cookie dough always bakes up nice and smooth.  The name is cringe worthy, I know, but life's too short for measuring molasses. Just make sure to follow the recipe on the box for the cutout gingerbread cookies and not the drop cookies. The drop cookie recipe won't be stiff enough to support your house.
Here's a trick I had to learn the hard way. To save my sanity, I roll out the dough directly onto parchment paper. That way, I can move it around with ease. Since the rolled dough has to be no more than 1/4" to 1/3" inch thick, this is the only way to get this job done. Otherwise, it's impossible to transfer something that big and that thin to a cookie sheet without losing your mind.
I put my cardboard pattern on the dough and, after running my knife around the edges, cut away the excess gingerbread. 
I baked each piece at 375 degrees for about 12-14 minutes. Then, using the parchment paper to transfer them, I slid each section to a cooling rack and didn't mess with them until they were completely cool to the touch.
Once cool, I removed the parchment and kinda "dry fit" the pieces to see which sides went best with each other.
Sometimes, the gingerbread edges can bake up a smidge rounded and this can keep the side seams of your house from fully lining up. No worries, people- just use your lime zester to gently chisel the edges until everything meets up nice and square.
Here's where I know I'm going to create controversy - but I gotta keep it real. I use hot glue to keep my gingerbread houses together. Why, you ask? Because: 1) No one gets to eat this house, so I don't have to stick with edible options to hold it together. 2) Nothing- and I mean nothing- is more heart breaking than watching your gorgeous gingerbread house collapse due to a royal icing failure. If you don't believe me, just ask Reagan.
First, I glued all the sides together.
And then I put on the roof. Don't worry about all the hot glue you can see on the seams of the house. Once I break out the royal icing and start decorating this baby, that glue will be a distant memory. Come back on Tuesday and I'll show you how it all turned out.

Since this is my last post before Christmas Day, I just want to take a moment and wish you and your family nothing but joy and happiness in the upcoming year. Hug them close and kiss their sweet faces, because your family is the most precious gift of all.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Christmas Candy Trifecta - Round Two

Guess who's finally in New Jersey?? Guess who also just got drafted into helping his mother with her blog on his first day home? This sweet boy, that's who. I remembered another candy recipe I wanted to share with you before Santa shows up, so it just couldn't wait. It's called Chocolate Peppermint Bark. Great news- it's a delicious candy that falls squarely into the Christmas Candy Trifecta category. You remember what the criteria was, right?

*1* It must be incredibly easy to prepare.
*2* It must taste amazing.
*3* It must look like a million bucks, but cost next to nothing to make.

Ian is super excited, so let's get this baby started!
Here's what you'll need. Again, I found all of these ingredients at Wal-Mart for a song. FYI- my good friend, Laura, is a Dove Chocolate representative and would be more than happy to help you if you'd rather use their brand of melting chocolate for this recipe. I've never had the pleasure of trying it, but c'mon, it's Dove. You know it's gotta be good.
We've been here before, so I'll be brief. Melt the dark chocolate in the microwave. 
Remember to stick with the 30 second intervals so it doesn't seize up on you. Stir after every 30 seconds until it's nice and smooth.
Pour the melted dark chocolate onto some wax paper.
Smooth it out into a thin layer. Let it sit until it is completely cool and firm to the touch.
Heat up the white chocolate. 
Again, take your time, making sure it is completely melted. Smooth the white chocolate out into a thin layer on top of the dark chocolate.
Make sure you get as close to the edges as possible.
Before the white chocolate sets up, sprinkle the peppermint bits all over the top. On a side note, one year I tried to make my own bits by smashing a ton of peppermint canes in a Ziploc. I ultimately ended up with peppermint bits swimming in dust and they didn't look as "sharp" as what I could buy in the store. The flavor was still good, but I wasn't impressed with how the bark ended up looking. It was a nice try, though.
Once it's completely cool (as in rock hard), peel the bark from the wax paper. Flip it over and snap it into pieces. By snapping from the back, it gives you cleaner edges and a nicer looking piece of candy. 
At this point, it's probably a good idea to do a taste test for quality control. At least, that's the line Ian sold me.
Here it is all done. Isn't it super cute? And it tastes as great as it looks. In total, it probably took us all of 45 minutes to make. And when I say us, I mean Ian.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

What's Going On

The other day, Marvin Gaye and I met on Pandora for a few cups of coffee. We've been close friends for many years and we try to get together as often as possible. I was grabbing a second cup of joe when, in his effortlessly cool way, he said- "Tell me, what's going on?" He's always been thoughtful like that. Here's what's going on.
 What I'm in awe of:
 Look at this incredible house down the road from us. I am not exaggerating when I say there's not a single inch of this home not covered in Christmas lights.  My crew lovingly refers to this masterpiece as the Griswald House. 

Where we're going:

A couple of weekends ago, we were able to catch the Medford Dickens Festival with our friends Shelley and Matt (along with their darling daughters). The town closed off Main Street, Santa made a quick appearance, and the streets were packed by the end of the night. Not gonna lie, it was pretty cold out there, but lucky for my guys, the cheesesteak sandwiches were screaming hot.
What I'm listening to 24/7 in my car:
It's about to drive my boys out of their minds, but Mr. Guaraldi and his trio are the only thing I'm gonna play until Dec. 26th. I love it, love it so that's just the way it's gonna be- 'cause I'm the mama and I said so.
What's the best new addition to my Christmas decoration stash:
These little strands are called fairy lights and they're the bomb dot com. Battery powered, tiny bursts of LED light goodness. What can I say? They're just super cute and they make me very happy.
My most recent "Aha" kinda moment:
After spending the whole day decorating the house for Christmas, I plopped down in this chair to admire our tree. I must have sat there for more than 15 minutes, just taking it all in.  Here's what was surprising. Despite it being 6pm and still wearing my PJs, despite having nothing planned for dinner, and a sink full of dirty dishes, I felt no need to get up and do anything.  Can I hear an Aha! out there? This is what I learned in that moment. The world would not stop revolving if I took a few minutes to sit back and revel in the simple pleasures of my life. The dishes could wait. During the Christmas season, peaceful moments like this are fleeting. And the truth is, it's a gift only I can give myself.
What the red headed kid is currently obsessed with:
It is all trick shot, all the time in our house right now. The inconvenience of not owning a pool table hasn't seemed to slow him down one bit. Every room in my house has it's own scattering of PVC pipes, golf balls and Pringles cans. What he lacks in equipment, the boy more than makes up for in enthusiasm.
What Graham 1.0's new job looks like:
Trying to describe how busy Graham is at work right now is a lot like trying to explain labor pains to a pregnant woman. I could probably give you some idea of what it's like, but the words won't do it justice. The great news is, he's loving it- even if he does have to catch up on his sleep during Gotham.
What I'm watching every night while making dinner:
I have my TV permanently turned to ABC Family. It's where you can find all the good shows and movies, all month long. Because it's just not Christmas without the Winter Warlock and we all know it.
What I can't wait for:
This. All my children home with me. I know it sounds cliche, but it's totally true- my kids are the most precious gift I've ever been given. I can't tell you how excited I am to have them all to myself, everyone under the same roof. Marvin and I have been talking about it and we've decided, when it comes to family, I have the best thing going on.