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!

Empanadas for a crowd

As we sail into this holiday weekend, do you have to prep food for a whole slew of people? Family gatherings at Tim’s parents’ house tend to be pretty big, and things go best if everyone pitches in and takes over a meal or two, so we have some experience with cooking for a bunch of people. For Caleb’s party, though, Tim and I volunteered to make empanadas, for a guest list we knew could be pushing 40. That was the biggest number we’d ever taken on!

I’m not sure if you’ve ever had an empanada, a delicious little dough pocket stuffed with either savory or sweet fillings. I hadn’t been exposed to them before I started dating Tim, but they’re one of his favorite things to make. We used to get discs of dough in the frozen section at Kroger and make them about once a month. When Kroger stopped carrying the dough, we were sad about it for a bit and went through empanada withdrawal. Then I started poking around on the Internet and found a recipe for dough, and we were back in (figurative) business!

Just writing about this has gotten me craving empanadas again! More inside!

Photo decoration for a surprise party

As I mentioned a few times, Tim and I hosted a surprise 65th birthday party for my dad at our house. What I may not have mentioned is that my parents were staying in our house that weekend. We had less than two hours to get set up and ready after the end of Mass on Sunday morning before the first relatives arrived with some folding tables to lend us. (Dad actually threw a bit of a wrench in the works by coming back to the house after church, which led to some frantic scurrying to conceal a few things that Tim had already put in motion.) It took a little forethought to prep as many things as possible, but still hide them (or store them in some friends’ refrigerator, thanks again guys for bringing over the growlers and all the fruit for the salad!). Tim and I were busy-busy from the moment dad walked back out the door, but we accomplished it all and I was pretty pleased.

I knew it’d be a sprint on the day of the party and that most decorations would be a lot of hassle, but I also wanted to do something special to celebrate my dad. Obviously, I couldn’t hang it up ahead of time, but I figured I should be able to spare 15 minutes to assemble a collection of photos for him on the wall. I asked my mom and sisters to contribute digital photos and physical prints, and used a coupon to get all of the photos printed at CVS for a discount. (It helped that the party was on Father’s Day! Poppas love some pictures! Or at least the promotions department is banking on people loving giving pictures to their poppas!) Mom even smuggled in the car a few envelopes of pictures of my dad from earlier in their marriage, plus his childhood album that his mom assembled. I picked up a pack of Sticky Tack from the grocery store a few days before the party, the poster-hanging weapon of choice from my youth, so none of the photos would be damaged and I could easily reposition pictures as necessary.

 

Click to view the full-sized image!

I had seen this idea in the first issue of my subscription to Martha Stewart Living (thanks again, Mom, it’s the gift that keeps on giving!) a year and a half ago, and had filed it away in my brain to use. As nice as the sample image looks with all black and white photos, I liked having a mixture of b/w and color photos in our display. I tried hard to include pictures of my dad with all of the party attendees, as well as a lot of representative events throughout our lives (weddings, graduations, dad with each of the daughters at our 8th grade dinner dance), cherished family traditions (the cabins!), and trips. Organizing the photos took a bit of prep time, but to assemble the display took about 15 minutes (I think I might have adjusted a few things a little later in the party, you can see there are a few gaps here and there). It was a speedy decoration, but the people coming to celebrate my dad enjoyed looking at the display and since we held the present-opening in the dining room, it added a nice festive touch.

 

Click to view the full-sized image!

My mom especially enjoyed showing her granddaughter all of the photos!

Thanks to my mom and sisters who helped this happen. We learned that finding pictures of my dad is occasionally tough, because he tends to be the one wielding the camera, but we’re going to make a concerted effort to get him in more pictures in the future!

(Thanks also to Beth, who took these pictures of the display. My camera never made it out during the party!)

Origami celebration party decorations

A few weeks ago, we had a celebration for one of our nephews at Tim’s parents’ lake house. Caleb had completed treatment at St Jude’s and was back to living the healthy, active life of a kid his age after a long struggle with Leukemia. We were so excited to celebrate him and his strength with all of our family and friends.

My mother-in-law asked me to think about some decorations for the party. She specifically asked for a few banners to use by the front door and in the back yard. I racked my brain for a week or so, but everything I kept coming up with seemed to not quite fit him. A lot of cute banner ideas on the internet (and Pinterest) are a little bit girly. While I would love chipboard letters covered in German glass glitter, I knew Caleb wouldn’t be quite as excited.

Caleb is the kind of kid who really loves to make things with his hands, and had gotten into origami. He and his dad folded paper cranes to hang in their garage, a strand of which we’d used to decorate for Sandy’s retirement party. Once I got to thinking about origami decorations, I wondered if I could make the letters out of folded paper. I found an origami alphabet with folding instructions for each letter (I used the second alphabet on that page, because the letters seemed clearer). I cut some wrapping paper (the closest thing I had at home to simulate thin origami paper) to some different sizes to see which would be best for the banners. After trying it with a sheet of 12″ x 12″ scrapbook paper, though, Tim and I agreed that bigger was probably the way to go for legibility.

A lot of folded paper and surprisingly no papercuts inside!

Spicy soda crackers

Just a quick little post to tell you about one of my favorite party snacks. My mom’s side of the family introduced us to spicy soda crackers a few years ago and I’ve been making them for tons of events ever since. They are an especially delicious accompaniment to football! The best part is that they are absurdly easy to make and take. I love having these at family gatherings; I made them for our family cabin weekend and my 1 and a half year old niece got into them and loved them. After about 10, she walked up to my sister, with red pepper flakes stuck to her lips and quietly said “ow.” Heh.

The recipe is so simple and there are tons of slight variations of it online (I know because I texted both of my sisters and my best friend once from Tim’s family lakehouse when I wanted to make them over Labor Day and hadn’t commited the recipe to memory yet and got varied responses). The way that I make them works out great for me, though, not overly greasy while still getting tons of seasoning on each cracker. The full recipe calls for a box of Saltines, but I only make a full recipe for a crowd (which we had a last weekend at the lakehouse for a party), and even when I do, I make it in two parts. Tim and I have discovered that this snack is even better with wheat Saltines (or, you know, your grocery store’s generic equivalent, which is what we use. Does Nabisco even make wheat Saltines?) which makes us feel a teeeeensy bit better about all of the oil involved! I love making these for parties because they’re dangerous to make just to have around the house, I will eat them all in no time.

You will need: 1 box of Saltine-style crackers (we tried this once with some old Club crackers at Tim’s parents’ house and it did not go well, the super-dry Saltine cracker absorbs the oil really well), 1 envelope of ranch dressing mix, 2 Tbsps of red pepper flakes, 1.5 C of canola or vegetable oil, and 2 gallon-sized ziplock bags. Dump two sleeves of crackers each in each ziplock bag. (I think the scanned recipe I received from my aunt said to do the whole thing in a 2-gallon bag, but we don’t keep these around and I like having the surface area for seasoning-distribution that splitting it between two bags creates.) Pour 3/4 C oil into a measuring cup and add 1 Tbsp of red pepper flakes and half of the ranch dressing mix to the oil. Whisk together until the seasoning is evenly distributed through the oil and then pour the mixture into one bag with the crackers. Repeat the oil, pepper and dressing step for the other bag. Seal the bags tightly (seriously, that is super important), and then lay the bags out flat, spreading the crackers as much as possible to get lots of contact with the oil mixture. Turn the bags every 15 minutes for an hour or so, most of the oil should be absorbed. Dump the crackers into a serving bowl and enjoy! These can be made ahead of time, though I wouldn’t open and close the bag too many times, as the pepper flakes always seem to get into the zipper mechanism and make the seal terrible. If you miraculously have leftovers, store them in something else! We’ve eaten these crackers up to 5 days after they’ve been prepared and they’re still yummy.

A bunting bridal shower – decorations

As I mentioned last time, I went a little overboard on invites and decorations for my dear friend Erin’s surprise bridal shower. One of the reasons that I was pleased the maid of honor was leaning towards the bunting invites was because I wanted to try my hand at sewing some fabric buntings to use as decorations. Again, when all of the planning was happening, I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to make the trek from Ohio to New Jersey for the shower, so I figured I would put all of my efforts towards prep work and decorations that I could mail if I couldn’t make it to help throw the party.

I went to Joanns Fabrics to find some purple and yellow fabrics in varying patterns to cut the bunting pieces from. I spent probably an hour wandering back and forth through the aisles, grabbing anything that fell into the general color scheme before weeding things out as being “too orange” or “not quite pink enough.” I ended up with a wide variety of patterns, which made me happy, including some fantastic pale yellow seersucker from the remnants section of the store and a purple argyle-esque pattern that seemed especially cheerful. I intentionally over-bought on yardage, knowing I’d want some room to make mistakes without having to go back and find the matching fabrics all over again. I came home with a great big bag of lovely fabric, plus a few spools of ribbon thrown in just for safety.

Just how much purple fabric IS there at Joanns? Oh, a whole lot, look inside.