Goodbye, 2012

I hope everyone had a truly lovely holiday season. My family was in from out of town and we spent a lot of time hanging out in our house and visiting my sister’s place (she also lives in town). In the month of December, I have attended 3 family parties, a friend party and a work party (3 of which have taken place in the past 9 days), and we’re having friends over for New Years Eve tonight. The holiday season is so busy and lovely! I’d have some pretty pictures to show you (I made an awesome dessert I was pretty nervous about for Christmas Eve, I have pictures of our decorations and the table from Christmas Eve dinner, plus some wrap-up on the presents I made for a big number of friends and family), but I managed to misplace my camera at my sister’s house and it hasn’t surfaced yet. High five, right?

In the meantime, I thought it’d be fun to look back at a few things we did in 2012, what was weirdly popular on the blog, and what we’re looking forward to next year.

In 2012

You would be forgiven for thinking this turned into a food blog this year, since I ended up posting so many recipes, but I really think of food as an extension of making a house into a home. Some favorites were: spicy soda crackers, arugula walnut pesto (we made this for Christmas Eve dinner), our crowd-pleasing empanadas and of course my family Christmas cookies. My grandma sampled one of my gumdrop cookies and told me that I am now the keeper of the gumdrop cookies, as she is done making them. (But she still busted out her sugar cookies. Grandma’s sugar cookies are magic.)

We slowed down a lot on building and redecorating because we had our minds on some other things, but looking back, I’m surprised at what we did actually accomplish this year. We put in a laundry room, added a TV to the kitchen, hired someone to re-lay our brick walk for us, and did some landscaping.

We also enjoyed some lovely trips and celebrations in 2012. We partied with our nephew who got the all-clear from some pretty serious health stuff thanks to St Judes as well as my dad who celebrated his 65th birthday with a surprise party at our house! We explored Kelley’s Island with my sister during a family vacation to Lakeside. Tim and I also had an awesome hike on Mt Rainier after a long drive across the country.

On the blog

The most popular post on Little Bronze Lion in 2012 has been the inspiration round-up of Prairie-style stained glass. I can understand that, I would have loved to run across a single source when I was looking for all of those pictures! The second most popular post is for spicy soda crackers, which doesn’t surprise me, as everyone who tries them wants that recipe! (A picture from that post even ended up on Pinterest, which amuses me endlessly.) The third most popular post was my review of my experience with Nicole’s Classes. That post got linked from their Twitter and Facebook pages, so that accounted for a lot of hits. When I was trying to decide whether to spend the money, I did a few searches, looking for people’s reviews of their experiences, so I was pretty pumped to share my thoughts.

In 2013

Of course, we don’t know for sure what we’ll tackle next year, but we have some thoughts. Our first project is almost definitely going to be the stairway and front bedroom, since the plaster is falling off the walls in some spots. We’ll be pulling up carpet, drywalling, building in closets, and adding (and replacing) windows. We know it’s going to make a big visual impact and it’s going to be very exciting.

When we redo the windows, we’re likely going to replace the siding on those faces of the house. The stuff we have now is vinyl and in terrible shape and we’re looking to upgrade to something that’s both sturdier and more attractive. It’s probably going to mean time on the porch roof, which I get nervous about at first, but hopefully by the end of the summer, I’ll be scampering around like a monkey.

I’d also like to get a garden started in the back yard this year. We grew a lot of lettuce and tomatoes and herbs at our apartment and I miss having fresh things outside our door. We might also re-seed the back yard (some of the grass seed Tim put down in the bare spots took before winter hit, but it’s still pretty sparse back there).

Our next major building/renovating/decorating project inside the house will probably be the dining room or living room. Neither of them need major work to the walls, but the floors will probably require some attention. It’ll be nice to take on what would basically be a decorating project. I do not look forward to the search for a new couch, but I’m pretty eager to have a new couch. (I like ours well enough and love how long it is, but something more grown-up would be excellent.) At that time, we can probably also address our media storage needs. I love the idea of a wall of books and we need smart solutions for CDs and DVDs, but we haven’t thought about any of it too seriously yet.

Anyway, 2012 has been a fine year for us and we look forward to even more progress in 2013. From our family to yours, have a happy new year!

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Family Christmas cookie recipes

A rare weekend post, but I wanted to drop in and share some family Christmas cookie recipes in case you are still looking for some delicious nibbles to make for the holiday. These are usually favorites at parties, too! As always, I check my cookies while baking after about half of the time in the recipe (these are copied straight from my momma’s instructions as e-mailed to me in 2006), because our oven is crazy.

M&M Cookies Yields about 3 dozen

christmas cookies 01_edit

1 cup brown sugar
1 cup shortening
2 eggs
1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
2 1/4 cups flour
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
1 1/2 cups M&Ms

Cream together sugar, shortening, eggs, and vanilla. Add soda and salt to flour. Add dry ingredients to cream mixture. Add M&Ms.
Drop by tsp on ungreased baking sheet. Bake at 375 for 10-12 minutes

Gumdrop Cookies Yields about 4 dozen

These cookies are crazy-good, but they’re a pain to make. My dad loves them and my mom now makes him contribute by having him chop the gumdrops, which is really the most annoying part, but isn’t so bad if you do it with a glass of wine in front of the TV like I did this year. For best results, cut gumdrops and roll them in a shallow dish of sugar so the pieces don’t stick together. Tim generally likes cookies more lightly-baked anyway, but as I made them this year, he commented on how these “suffer more from over-baking than the others,” so keep that in mind.

christmas cookies 02_edit

Cream together 1 cup shortening, 1 cup brown sugar and 1 cup granulated sugar. Add 2 eggs and 1teaspoon vanilla. Dissolve 1 teaspoon baking soda in 1 Tablespoon cold water and add.
Sift 2 cups cake flour into a separate bowl, add 1 teaspoon baking powder and 1 teaspoon salt. Sift 3 times, then combine the two bowls.
Add 2 cups oatmeal, 1 cup coconut, 1 cup chopped nuts (optional) and 1 cup chopped large gumdrops.
Drop by tablespoonful on cookie sheet. Bake 12 minutes @ 375 degrees. Pat with powdered sugar after baking.

Peanut Butter Blossoms Yields about 4 dozen (I got 43 today when I made them)

Everybody seems to have a recipe for peanut butter blossoms, but Tim swears he prefers ours. My trick is to push the kisses into each cookie on the tray, and then go back to the beginning and push down and twist the kiss a little more. The chocolate at the bottom of the candy should be melted by then (if not, give it another minute or two before the twisting, but not too long, or the whole kiss will be melty) and it creates a little collar that really anchors the candy in the cookie.

christmas cookies 03_edit

1 3/4 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup shortening
1/2 cup peanut butter
1 egg
2 Tablespoons milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
48 Hershey kisses
Additional sugar for rolling (white or colored)

Combine all ingredients except candy in large mixer bowl. Mix on lowest speed until dough forms. Shape into balls and roll in sugar. Place on ungreased baking sheet and bake @350 degrees for 10 to 12 minutes. Top each cookie immediately with candy kiss. Press down firmly.

I have all three of these cookies stashed in tins in my kitchen right now and they’ve been calling my name all day! Yay, Christmas baked goods!

Freebie: Printable gift tags

In the past two evenings, I’ve wrapped most of my presents. Man, how do people with tons of kiddos handle it? For my small family plus several friends to whom I ship presents and a few local friends we exchange with, I felt like it took hours. I know my mother in law wraps things across several nights, which is probably the right approach. Wrap until juuuuust before you start smooshing the ends closed out of boredom and frustration. Then break for the evening and enjoy a cocoa with peppermint schnapps. (I have no idea if this is part of my mother-in-law’s strategy, but I’m imagining it will be part of mine in the future, heh.)

I have a cousin who is a master wrapper. I used to love to come babysit her kid during the holidays, because her wrapping station would be in full swing, with baskets of gorgeous ribbon and thick luxury paper strewn about. The most I can handle is some accidentally-coordinated paper from Target (I tend to gravitate towards the same kinds of colors and simple graphics every time I need to pick up something new), which tears on the corners if you pull too hard. I also have a few spools of bakers’ twine which I’ve been using to excess (though I do have a plastic bin corralling all of my ribbon and bow options, of which I decent selection, generally left over from craft projects). I theoretically like the idea of package tie-ons, and I read enough blogs that try to convince me that’s what my elegant wrapping is missing. I know that I do not have the patience to gather little bits and bobs for sheer festivity, or the energy to make 30 air-dry-clay ornaments with people’s initials stamped in them. Thank you, blogging world, but I’ll pass on the tie-on.

I do, however, indulge in gift tags. Sure, we have the peel-off kinds, 25 to a sheet, artwork comprised of a haphazard assortment of clip-art-looking Christmas icons. I also have an impulse-control problem when I go shopping for cut-price holiday accoutrements just after Christmas (it’s why I don’t let myself do it every year, but I also have gotten some drop dead gorgeous cards this way), so I’ve picked up some nicer adhesive tags along the way as well. However, my favorite gift tags are the ones that I’ve designed myself.

Presents all lined up to be packaged for mailing!

Presents all lined up to be packaged for mailing!

For the past 6 years, I’ve put together a mix CD for some of my friends and family containing holiday songs that includes old school standards (Bing on “White Christmas”), oddities (“Mele Kalikimaka” always puts a smile on my face), familiar songs done in fun ways (“O Little Town of Bethlehem” as performed by Belle and Sebastian), lovely instrumentals (the stunning version of “O Holy Night” that was featured on an episode of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip played by displaced New Orleans musicians), and originals (Guster did an amazing song called “Tiny Tree Christmas” that is probably one of my top ten Christmas songs now). If you know me at all, you probably can guess that I design artwork to go in the cover of these mix CDs, with a track listing and everything. If I’m feeling super amibitious, I adapt that artwork into some gift tags to use for that year’s presents. I know the Internet is just riddled with adorable free gift tags for you to snag, but I thought I’d share mine with you now, in case you’re staring down a mountain of unwrapped gifts, with gift receipts to be attached and price tags to be picked off, and boxes to be located and tissue paper to be smoothed down. Lovely tags always motivate me just a tiny bit more to see it all finished off, here’s hoping you get some use out of them! Click inside to get the goodies!

Baking without losing your mind

Hi there. How is this holiday season treating you? Are you overwhelmed? Did you bite off more than you can chew? Boy, do I hear you. I am the queen of “well, sure I can probably add 6 more things to my plate” and I usually end up in a state of constant low-level stress, which results in me getting massively sick either just before or just after family parties. I often ring in the new year with a cold.

This year, I’m trying to map things out a bit better. I have a planner in which I actually wrote down major activities I hoped to accomplish each evening. I’m actually staying on top of things, much to my own amazement, and feeling like I can tackle all of the things that I intended to get to by the time my parents and sister arrive on Sunday. What? Awesome. One of the things I have plotted out is baking, and I thought I would share a few tips with you. These are not your “add the dry ingredients in 3 parts” sorts of tips. These are “here is how to strategize several different beloved cookie recipes across the space of a week without getting excessively dramatic” sorts of tips.

I mean, I’m not revealing ground-shattering things here, just how I bake things without going nuts. Read on.

Sugared cranberries

The week before Thanksgiving, my sister had Tim and me over to her house to watch the Buckeyes play football. We showed up at the door and she greeted us with “I cannot stop eating these cranberries.” After being ushered into the kitchen, we tried a sugared cranberry and they were indeed addicting. Tim went elsewhere in the house and Beth and I stayed in the kitchen, picking at the bowl of cranberries and chatting while she roasted some pumpkin seeds (she even followed the recipe I linked on my blog!). Between the four adults and Beth’s daughter, we made short work of the bowl of cranberries and an obsession was born.

Beth shared the recipe for the sugared cranberries with me and once I saw how easy it was, I couldn’t wait to try them out myself. Then a few days later, I was making a run to the grocery store to pick up a few last minute things, as you do the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. (I had to get an orange to make the pumpkin orange muffins to bring along!) On a whim, I looked around for fresh cranberries to try to make those tasty suckers myself. It took me a solid 4 minutes of wandering the produce area until I spotted literally the last bag of cranberries in a case (or they were really well hidden and the bag I snagged was put there by someone who’d changed their minds). I paused just long enough to wonder whether my impulse-desire to make sugared cranberries was about to deprive some other last-minute shopper the ingredients to make some family-tradition cranberry sauce. Then I got over it, snatched up the bag and gleefully dropped it into my basket.

I am religious about watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, but only certain parts. After all of the lovely Broadway performances in the beginning, I gazed at floats and balloons until the cavalcade of unknown pop stars made me realize this part of the parade was skippable. (I always make it back in time for Santa. Even the year that Mom made Mel and I dash out to get stuff from the grocery store before they closed at noon, and we paid for emergency groceries in our pajamas, we rushed back into the house with just enough time to see the jolly man bringing up the tail end of the parade. Traditions are traditions, my friend.) I padded into the kitchen and mixed up the water and honey concoction and soaked the cranberries while I mixed the sugars in a baking dish. Next time I’d use a spoon that was a little more slotted (or shake the cranberries through a collander), because on the next step I got little globules of honey-water in the sugar which made everything a little clumpier than I was looking for. However, with a little extra drying time, soon the cranberries were ready to snack on while we got the rest of the dinner ready.

Man, my mother-in-law's house is a food-staging dream. This lantern is gorgeous, no?

Man, my mother-in-law’s house is a food-staging dream. This lantern is gorgeous, no?

These ended up being as much a hit with my in-laws as they were at Beth’s house. (Okay, I ate at least a 1/4 of them. They’re really tasty.) They’re enormously easy to prepare, and you can feel “good” about eating fruit during the holidays, even though they’re subsequently dredged in sugar. Anyway, Beth promised to make these for all events we’re attending throughout December, so I look forward to eating them over and over. I’m going to keep my eyes peeled for bags of fresh cranberries I can toss in my freezer to make a half-batch just for our own snacking throughout the rest of the winter. It’s a pretty hands-off snack that can be prepped the day of an event with minimal fuss. My favorite kind of recipe!

Chocolate toffee walnut cookies

Tim and I have an agreement when it comes to family stuff at the holidays. We switch which family we spend Thanksgiving with and Christmas with (this year, Thanksgiving was in Illinois with Tim’s family, and Christmas will actually be in our house with my family, including my sister flying in from Colorado, I’m pretty excited about this), and then priority for extended family parties goes to whichever family we did not celebrate Christmas day with. This means we’ll be headed to Kentucky for Tim’s mom’s family’s party and that would get priority over either my Dad’s or Mom’s family parties if there is a conflict. The following year it switches, ensuring we get to see all of the family at least every other year. It’s a good system and it keeps us from guilt trips and we get to do lots of celebrating, all things we like! If there isn’t a conflict between the parties, well, then, we get to hit them all, which is even more exciting!

This year, my Dad’s family party was super-early on December 1st. It was so early that my parents wouldn’t be able to make it since they live 9 hours away and can’t really run out to Ohio twice in the same month. With my mom out of commission and my older sister busy with her family, I volunteered to buy the gifts for the kids on behalf of our immediate family. (I have wiggled out of decision-making on this for several straight years, instead just coughing up money for my portion, so it was time to step up.) I got my Christmas spreadsheet cranking and figured out gifts for each kid (eight total this year!), put in an Amazon order, and even sucked it up and faced the Target toy aisle, which was nearly my undoing. (I had an expression of horror on my face the whole time. Lord help us when we decide to have little ones of our own.)

Between shopping and wrapping (plus figuring out something amusing for a white elephant gift exchange with the theme of “Grandma’s Attic”), I wanted to take a super-easy approach to the food I was required to bring. Tim couldn’t attend the party himself, as he was headed to Indianapolis with tickets to the Big Ten Championship Game (I gave him my blessing, he and our friend had a marvelous time), so the appetizer and dessert to share I was bringing for my “family” was really just for me. I admit it, I punked out on putting in a monumental effort. However, holiday parties I think are sometimes about bringing something super-easy and enjoyable, so there you go. My appetizer was a big bowl of spicy soda crackers (honestly, easiest thing to bring), and for my dessert I tackled Joy the Baker’s Vanilla Almond Orange Cloud Cookies which caught my eye because they were gluten-free. My older sister as well as my cousin and another cousin’s daughter are gluten-free, so I thought it’d be a nice thing to share. Even though it was a new recipe, it looked pretty straight-forward and easy, but then I panicked and got concerned that the two-dozen yield (due to some complicated almond-paste math, I made a batch and a half) was going to be so small for the party. I had no energy or desire to whip up one of our beloved family Christmas cookie recipes so close to the day (and so FAR before the holiday!).

That’s where my savior cookies come in. Chances are better than not that on any given week, I have logs of dough in my freezer, all ready to be baked into cookies. I came across this recipe from Smitten Kitchen for Chocolate Toffee Walnut Cookies a few years ago, and it quickly became a staple. The suggestion she makes to freeze the dough was eye-opening (I think this was about the time I was getting into the idea of slice-and-bake from a couple of Martha Stewart recipes, too), because one of my biggest gripes about baking cookies is that if you’re going to put in the work, you want to enjoy the results and I simply don’t eat cookies that fast. Tim is usually packing up extras and bringing them into his office (where I am beloved, I think) and I’m sad that the cookies are gone like that. Slice-and-bake is awesome, because I can put in a whole lot of effort up front and then bake cookies off a dozen at a time and get to savor them. They are also ideal to have on hand for things like church get-togethers or knowing a friend is going to drop by on their way through town. Or super-early Christmas parties.

This knife is my favorite ever. It was a wedding present from my parents, along with kitchen shears and I use it near-daily. I love how it slices through the chunks in the cookie dough.

This knife is my favorite ever. It was a wedding present from my parents, along with kitchen shears and I use it near-daily. I love how it slices through the chunks in the cookie dough.

As the recipe suggests, you can roll the dough into logs (I usually have to let the dough chill in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours so it’s firm enough to shape), which for me requires a lot of patience and a bench scraper to clean my rolling surface and collect stray dough often. The logs will not be pretty, but they will be little lifesavers, so keep at it. Wrapped well, these have lasted well over a month in my freezer without any problems baking up later. When you’re ready to redeem your investment in the process, slice off as many as necessary and bake according to the directions. (Actually, the time given is still way longer than I bake them, but I think I’ve mentioned before our oven is insane, so I check things often and pull them out as soon as they seem ready. Kitchen renovation, I am so looking forward to you.)

Come on, just look at the bits of walnut and toffee in these beauties!

Come on, just look at the bits of walnut and toffee in these beauties!

These bake up so nicely and always seem to be a hit when I take them places. Even though I took two dozen almond cookies and two dozen chocolate cookies with me to a party that ended up having 15 people (whoops!), I only came home with three of each.

Okay, so my sister and I were actually the only representatives from our immediate family at all (her kid had the stomach flu and her husband stayed home to take care of her). However, having the party this early coincided with some downright-gorgeous weather and I got to flaunt a lightweight red skirt I joked about being perfect for a Christmas party when I bought it in August.

Okay, so my sister and I were actually the only representatives from our immediate family at all (her kid had the stomach flu and her husband stayed home to take care of her). However, having the party this early coincided with some downright-gorgeous weather and I got to flaunt a lightweight red skirt I joked about being perfect for a Christmas party when I bought it in August. Also, my sister knitted that shrug she’s wearing and it’s amazing. (We did not intentionally wear the same colors.)

So if you’re looking to get ahead of your holiday baking, give this recipe a shot. Yeah, it involves a double-boiler (or a glass bowl over simmering water, which is my approach) and there’s some chilling time and the log-shaping is kind of insane, the time you save on the back-end when you actually go from “no cookies” to “fresh baked delicious chocolate cookies” in under 20 minutes, that part is pretty amazing and makes it worthwhile. I usually make this dough on a lazy Sunday and am thanking myself for it weeks or months later. Give it a shot!