Monday, December 19, 2011

Christmas Cookie Fun

Christmas cookies are a holiday tradition most of us love to share.  This is my favorite recipe for making delicious and versatile cookie dough.

1 pound butter, divided (do not use vegetable oil spreads)
2 3/4 cups all purpose flour
1 package French Vanilla cake mix

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Microwave two sticks of the butter (1/2 pound) on high for one minute or until melted.  With a paring knife, slice the remaining butter into 1/2-inch pieces; add to melted butter and toss to coat.  Allow butter to stand five minutes or until softened.
  2. Meanwhile, measure flour into a large bowl.  Add cake mix to the flour and blend with a whisk, breaking up any clumps.
  3. Whisk butter until smooth and free of lumps.  If necessary, microwave butter an additional 10 - 20 seconds or just until creamy and pourable.  Whisk again.  Pour all of the butter into dry ingredients; thoroughly scraping butter from bowl.  Mix until dry ingredients are incorporated and the dough is smooth.  (If you find the dough too stiff to stir, knead by hand until smooth.)
Shaping the cookies provides endless possibilities.  And the dough contains no raw eggs - no salmonella worries while you nibble!

I created cute Santa faces inspired by a magazine photo.  To do this, place about 1/3 of the dough onto a well floured surface.  Roll the dough out evenly with a rolling pin, adding more flour (to the pin or the dough) as necessary.  It can get sticky! Cut cookie shapes using a floured, heart shape cookie cutter.  Place hearts onto a baking sheet, 1 inch apart, using a large spatula.  Bake 8 - 10 minutes or until very light golden brown.  Cool 2 minutes on baking sheet; remove to a nonstick cooling rack.  Once completely cool, rotate the hearts upside down.  The point will be the top of Santa's hat. Using a container of white icing, place a dot at the end of the point.  Then ice a continuous line from one curve around through the other curve.  This will be Santa's beard.  With red decorating gel, place a dot just above the beard to represent his nose.  Place two dots of icing above the nose for Santa's eyes and stick a chocolate chip on each.  Make a triangle and fill in with the red gel from above the eyes to the white tip of the hat.

  For the remaining dough, I chose to use a cookie press.  They are fun to use and you get professional looking shapes.  Follow the instructions included with your cookie press to place your shapes flat onto a baking sheet.  Bake 8 - 10 minutes or until very light golden brown.  Cool 2 minutes on baking sheet; remove to a nonstick cooling rack.  The forms of these cookies are so charming that they require little decorating.  Dipping one side in melted chocolate looks (and tastes) great.  And of course you can ice and add sprinkles.  I found edible snowflakes (made from potato starch) at my local Fresh Market.

This recipe can also make drop cookies by adding any desired mix-ins to your dough.  Play around with  decorating ideas for your own custom holiday cookies.  Happy baking!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Quick & Festive DIY Table Topper

The tree is trimmed, stockings are hung, but you still need something festive to spruce up your serving table before the Christmas party.  If you are like me, you probably have some unused ornaments.  Take a look through your boxes of holiday decor and pick out some in various colors and sizes.

Find an empty container for displaying your decorations.  I used a 12-inch tall, clear glass vase with an opening large enough to fit my hand inside.  Three small ornaments (I used stars) went into the container first to act as a space filler.  I tied a string from each star on to the hanging loop of a ball ornament.  Then I stacked the ball ornaments to the top of my vase, pointing them in random directions, allowing the stars to hang at different heights.

Wrap a string of lights around your vase a few times and trail it across the table.  Lights make everything a little more jolly.  Set out your cookies and let the fun begin! ( * The string of lights is recommended for tables that are located next to a wall.  Do not run cords across the floor and risk your guests tripping over them after a glass or two of eggnog. * ) 

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Giving Handmade Gifts

I love giving and shopping for handmade gifts.  Sure, you can find me online filling an Amazon cart with great books, board games and the latest Xbox releases for anyone on my list, but it’s the handcrafted items that I get excited about.

Does the thought of giving handmade gifts conjure images of your five-year-old self, proudly presenting a glue-dripping, glittery concoction to a loved one? Remember how happy you felt with what you created using your own hands? Let’s think about how satisfying it could be to do that now as an adult, using less glue.

I believe that each of us is creative in our own way.  Using your creativeness could result in a unique and awesome gift for someone.  Not convinced? Haven’t found your niche? Let the web give you some inspiration. Check out Instructables where you can get step-by-step guidance on practically anything, from making Cherry Liqueur Chocolates for the party host to knitting a hat for your sister.  Or visit this site and learn how to make Coconut Cream Soap for your stylist.  You can learn a new skill and surprise them with a thoughtful gift.

If you feel crunched for time / don’t have the right tools / need a gift where the recipient is difficult to shop for, have some other crafty person do the work for you.  Check out the merchandise at local art fairs or coffee shops.  Craft fairs abound during November and December.  If you have a week or two that you can spare on shipping, browse Etsy. It is a storefront for a global community of sellers with thousands of handcrafted and vintage items.  I got this awesome shirt for a teenage boy last year from Etsy and even he loved it.

So while you are scurrying this holiday season to buy the latest and greatest gadget for each person on your shopping list, also think about giving them something personal.  Something special that was made with time and love.