Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Yum Yum Balls

Christmas is less than a week away and I have been enjoying the last few days at a slower pace than I normally do this time of year. I managed to completely catch up on my baking list by paring down and simplifying things quite a bit which has left me with some extra time to enjoy some fun activities with the kids.

First, we attended a soft opening of The Nutcracker ballet at our beautiful historic theater. Aunt Jen, my dear college roommate and Lucy's godmother, drove up from Pittsburgh to spend the day with us. It was her first time at the ballet and I think probably her last. Ballet is really not her thing (or mine!). However, the kids really enjoyed it and it was great that we managed to snag balcony seats where virtually no other person was seated. I pulled Matthew out of school so he could come with us and he was so excited. He had been dying to see the Nutcracker ever since he had learned that there was a scene involving the Nutcracker battling the giant mouse king! The battle scene lived up to his expectations and he was excited to discover that he was familiar with quite a few of the music numbers.

A few days later, we got dumped with even more snow. The previous couple feet we had received had actually thawed a bit but soon enough a new storm system rolled in and left us with even more snow than before. Thankfully, this snow was the fluffy, light variety - easy to shovel and fun to play in. One of my favorite moments this month was getting outside with Emma (Lucy was napping and Matthew was at school) and making snow angels, building a snow fort, and having a small snowball fight. It all started because I forced her to come outside and keep me company while I shoveled the walk. While I was working hard, she followed close behind me, pelting me with snowballs. I finally finished and whitewashed that little twerp and then we proceeded to play for a good hour. She was so happy and didn't want to come back inside even with the promise of hot cocoa. I could barely feel my toes when were finished, but the bonding time with my eldest daughter was worth the discomfort!

Speaking of Emma, I have been trying to encourage her to take a more active role in our Christmas baking. She usually gravitates towards eating the ingredients and the end product instead of participating in the actual preparation, usually citing exhaustion or boredom as excuses. Emma has the attention span of a distracted chipmunk, so if I was going to involve her in the baking, the recipe had to be quick and easy. First, I had her help me prepare a batch of bourbon balls. That went over so well that I decided to make a recipe that I had seen circulating on Facebook for the past couple weeks for an Australian treats called "Yum Yum Balls." Basically a sweet cookie bite prepared with crushed cookie crumbs, shredded coconut, condensed milk, and a touch of cocoa powder, I figured this would be another treat that Emma would be more than willing to help with. I guided her through the crushing of the cookies, combining of the other ingredients, and rolling of the balls. She especially enjoyed learning how to use the melon baller.

More than just a way to get Emma to help in the kitchen, these little treats made a nice addition to cookie gifts for teachers and friends. Ever the coconut lovers, my kids went wild for these. I also loved them - a nice, easy way to make a light truffle/cookie without all the fuss. They look beautiful too!

Yum Yum Balls
as seen on I Wash You Dry

Note: For authentic flavor, use Maria biscuits if you can find them. I found that my grocery store carried the Goya variety in the hispanic section. If you can't find them, use any digestive biscuit, graham cracker, or vanilla wafer crumbs.

2 cups crushed cookie crumbs
2 tablespoons cocoa powder
1 (14oz) can sweetened condensed milk
1 cup toasted coconut flakes
Extra coconut for rolling

Combine the cookie crumbs, cocoa powder, sweetened condensed milk, and 1 cup coconut in a large bowl. mix until combined and sticky.

Roll into 1 inch balls. Coat the balls in the extra coconut. Chill in fridge until ready to eat. Enjoy!

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Dark Chocolate Fudge with Pecans

A few days ago, I shared a few of our favorite Christmas recipes. These are the ones we have made time and time again over the years. However, in addition to old favorites, every year there are a few new sweets that are added into the mix. Last year, one of the new items I made was this fudge. Now, I consider myself a bit of a fudge snob simply because I have eaten so much of it in my lifetime. In fact, Paul and I honeymooned on Mackinac Island where we did nothing but eat fudge all week long at the various confectionery shops that can be found all over the island. I am very sensitive to fudge that has not been properly mixed, leaving a slightly gritty texture to the end product. Most homemade fudge tends to end up this way, unfortunately, so I have never really been too eager to eat or make homemade fudge.

This recipe completely changed my mind. I was immediately drawn to it when I first spied it as part of a recipe roundup and the little anecdote about the author's mother eating the fudge for breakfast during the holidays simply because it was that irresistible convinced me to try it. Plus, I now was the mother of the biggest chocolate fiend known to man: Lucia Therese. That girl can pack away the chocolate like no other child I have ever seen, so I knew at the very least she would like it!

This fudge completely blew me away. It's smooth, rich, creamy and just magnificent. I find it completely irrisistible and everyone I have shared it with has agreed! Plus, it's probably one of the easiest "cookie" recipes around, making it the perfect addition to the already long list of tasks left to do this Christmas. Looking for a last gift for your child's teachers? How could they resist a plate of this fudge?

I completely underestimated how much Lucy would like this fudge. After I spent some time cutting the fudge into little 1-inch cubes, I placed them in a tupperware container and left it sitting in the middle of my kitchen island while I went into the study to help Matthew with his homework. When I returned, I found that my little Lucy had taken the wooden stool out of the bathroom, pushed it along the floor until it butted up against the kitchen island, and then stood on her tiny little tiptoes and strained with her tiny little fingers until she was able to reach the container holding the precious chocolate. She carefully pulled it towards herself, pried the top off, and began eating handful after handful of fudge. When I arrived on the scene, her face was covered in chocolate and she looked at me with bright eyes and a grotesque, fudgey smile as she muttered through bulging cheeks: "Mmmmm....good!"

I snapped this picture as I was cutting the fudge and I noticed Lucy making her way onto the
stool to see what I was doing. This was her facial expression when she spied the chocolate!

Lucy's dessert after dinner this week has been a small piece of this fudge cut into even tinier pieces. The girl loves her chocolate!

I can say for certain that this fudge will definitely be added to the Christmas favorites list in the years to come!

Dark Chocolate Fudge with Pecans
from Foodiecrush

1/2 cup cubed butter (room temperature)
12 oz. dark chocolate, chopped (I used a package of Ghirardelli semi sweet chocolate chips)
2 cups of sugar
⅔ cup evaporated milk
12- 15 large, fresh marshmallows
¾ cups chopped nuts (I used pecans)
1 teaspoon vanilla

Make a sling using parchment paper and fit into a greased 8x8 baking dish. Set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, pour in the chopped chocolate and the 8 tablespoons of room temperature butter. Set aside.

In a large pot, stir together the two cups of sugar and the evaporated milk until mixed. Add the marshmallows and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture is completely melted. Give it a few extra stirs to ensure that the sugar is thorougly dissolved and then pour the hot mixture over the chocolate and butter in the bowl. Let sit for a minute and then slowly stir together until the chocolate and butter are melted and combined. Add in the vanilla and chopped nuts.

Immediately scrape into the prepared baking dish. Rap the dish on the counter a few times to even out the mixture and then place in the fridge until set. After about an hour, cover with plastic wrap and then allow the fudge to continue setting overnight.

Use the sling to remove the fudge and cut into neat little squares. Enjoy!

Monday, December 12, 2016

Our Favorite Christmas Recipes

You guys...I am so behind on Christmas baking this year! Normally I begin at the very beginning of the month and sometimes before! This year, I have made exactly two things so far...out of a list of over 15 items! No bueno.

We have managed to do some fun "Christmas-themed" outings. I refuse to take the kids to the mall or someplace to sit on Santa's lap, but I'm all about having breakfast with Santa Cow. Lucy was particularly enamored with the large bovine. At the breakfast, the kids made a cute picture frame to commemorate their visit with Santa Cow. They also got to tell Santa Cow what they wanted for Christmas, to which Santa Cow responded by telling them they need to ask for more chicken.

In other news, it is finally starting to look like Christmas around here. We go big or go home around here, as evidenced by our temperatures swinging from sunny and 60 degrees to freezing cold and snowing in a 48-hour span. We have about two feet of snow outside at the moment and between the drifts and constant snowfall and my determination to keep the driveway free of ice, I have shoveled the snow about five times each day since Thursday. It's a war. At first I thought Matthew was going to be a huge help to me. When he saw me getting ready to go shovel for the first time, he cried "I'll help you Mom!" and rushed to get his hat and coat on. Well, once he was outside and he took one turn across the driveway and discovered how heavy and laborious the task truly was, he abandoned his post ("Here Mom. Shoveling is too hard for six-year-olds!") and proceeded to pelt me with snowballs while I finished everything up. That kid's a twerp.

When we got back inside, Matthew requested hot chocolate. I thought that sounded good, so I got out the cocoa powder, milk, and sugar and made a big batch from scratch. Matthew took one sip of the finished product and declared that it tasted "soapy." I have no idea what he was talking about since the girls and I finished our mugs without a complaint. There's just no pleasing everyone around here!

Ok, that's my complaint about the snow for now. The reason for this post is Christmas baking! This week, I plan to scratch gingerbread houses, sugar cookies, and two types of breads off the list. Let's hope it gets finished. The kids are really looking forward to those gingerbread houses. We build them, we look at them, watch them slowly stale over the next couple of weeks, and then throw them away while the kids all cry and protest. Why do we repeat this again every year? It just is something that must be done especially since Matthew has religiously woken me up between 5:30 and 6:00 every morning to ask me if today is the day that we are making our gingerbread houses. If I ever want to sleep in again, I better either lock my door or get those houses made.

While I was gathering my shopping list and constructing my "To Make" list from my Christmas recipe archives, I thought I would compose a roundup of our favorite Christmas recipes in case you are still searching for something special to make and bring to a Christmas gathering. Some of these posts are pretty old and feature some pretty terrible pictures, but the recipes are still awesome. Just keep in mind that everything tastes way better than it looks! Links are embedded in the title of each goodie and should take you right to the recipes. Happy Baking!

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Christmastime is Here!

The tree is trimmed. The lights are up. Holly, ivy, bows, and silver adorn our staircases and mantles. Everything looks merry, bright, cozy, and charming. Not that it wasn't a battle to get it looking that way. Every year, decorating is such a struggle for me because it is not something that I particularly enjoy doing. I enjoy it all once it is all in place, but I really detest the whole process of dragging the various boxes from the attic and cellar and then opening them, dusting off the contents, and finding a place for them. The only part of the whole process that I truly enjoy is selecting our Christmas tree.

For the past couple of years, we have driven outside of town to a little Christmas tree farm where we are given a little tractor ride into their tree fields where we then select and chop down our chosen tree. We decided to go tree hunting on a Sunday which might not have been the wisest choice considering we get up early in the morning for Mass and everyone is pretty grumpy and ready for a nap by 10:00 AM. But, off to the tree farm we went, grumpy kids and all.

It was bitterly, bitterly cold that day. The chill in the air did not seem to bother the kids but I made sure we were all wearing gloves, hats, and warm pants despite Matthew and Emma's insistence that a light jacket was sufficient for them.We bundled Lucy up in clothing so warm and so fluffy that she could barely move. It was quite the sight to watch her waddle her way around the tree farm.

Last year, we had no problems choosing a tree. We glanced at perhaps no more than four trees before finding one that was perfect for our home. This year, however, we took quite a bit of time wandering in and out of rows and rows of fraser firs before finally settling on one pleasing enough to the both of us. Matthew was not at all picky. He went for the first tree we saw, which we quickly rejected because it was only four feet tall. After we rejected a few more of his suggestions, he began to get discouraged and proceeded to go fight with Emma over who got to pull the wagon with the saw. When Paul and I finally chose a tree and asked the kids what they thought of it, their answer was basically something along the lines of :"Looks great now chop it down already!"

Paul had a bit of difficulty with that part. He sawed and sawed, but that tree stayed rooted. The kids began to entertain themselves by arguing once again about ownership of the wagon.

Finally, the tree fell over! Time to take it home and decorate!

While picking out the tree is my favorite part of the decoration process, adorning the tree with lights and ornaments is my absolute least favorite part. I simply detest it. The kids were so incredibly excited about it but they broke two ornaments before even placing a single one on the tree. Plus, our lights were burnt out so we had to make a special trip to the store just to get some lights for the tree before we hung the ornaments, which frustrated everyone further. In addition, both Matthew and Emma kept fighting over who got to put what ornament on the tree. They both only hung their ornaments in a 6-inch radius along the bottom of the tree, so I spent the majority of the time rearranging their ornament placement. The fighting was nearly constant! Paul and I were so incredibly frustrated by the end, so much so that we both were repeating under our breaths: "We are creating memories, we are creating memories...."

Paul, at one point after yet another ornament shattered, was ready to throw in the towel. I reminded him of what so many people readily remind me: we will miss all this some day when our kids are grown. Paul just raised one eyebrow and said: "Really? I'm not so sure."

In the end, we did get that tree decorated. It is beautiful and the kids are so proud although I need to figure out a way to keep Emma away from the tree. She's constantly removing ornaments, playing with the tree branches, or sticking her hand in the tree stand to play with the water. She's worse than a cat.

Speaking of Emma, I have really been struggling with her lately. My sweet, fun, spunky, adorable little girl has been replaced with the most stubborn, obstinate, and completely unpleasant minion. She breaks my heart on a daily basis with her lack of obedience. The other day, I broke down to Paul and lamented my parenting and he reminded me that I had similar struggles with Matthew around the same age. In time, it will pass. It's just a phase. But in the meantime, the girl needs discipline and she had a major lesson taught to her on Saint Nicholas Day.

Each year, Paul and I leave treats for the kids in their shoe on the evening of December 5th so that when they awake on the morning of Saint Nicholas' Feast Day, they are magically greeted with the goodies left for them by the generous saint. We warned the kids that if they were not well-behaved, Saint Nick would most certainly not leave them anything special in their shoe. Much to my dismay, all our threats had absolutely no effect on Emma. While Matthew has been a perfect angel recently, Emma's behavior only seemed to get worse. When we sent them to bed on the night of the 5th, Paul and I knew that there was no way Emma would be getting any treats in her shoe.

When Emma awoke the next morning, she saw that Matthew and Lucy had received cookies and chocolate. Rather than treats, she found rolled up in her shoe the following note from Saint Nick.

And you know what? She has actually been behaving better. I'm hoping that her behavior continues to improve because I would really hate to leave a lump of coal in her stocking on Christmas morning!

Oh, and Matthew got a note from Saint Nick too. Before he went to bed, he placed his shoe by the fireplace and folded up a picture he drew of Mary the mother of Jesus with instructions to Saint Nick to take it up to heaven with him and show it to Mary. We couldn't not write back.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Turkey, Apple, and Cheddar Sandwich

Whenever Matthew has the day off from school, we have started a little tradition of going out for lunch at a tiny local Chinese restaurant. The restaurant opened less than two years ago and we would drive past it regularly on our way to the gym. Matthew, seeing the "Grand Opening" signs waving and liking the restaurant's eye-catching logo, kept begging me to take him there to eat. I had never before considered Matthew a lover of Chinese food, so I delayed taking him thinking it would just end with me eating two lunches. Finally, as a special treat, we stopped in on our way back from the gym. This particular restaurant has a full menu as well as several pre-made options in warming trays that can be quickly scooped into a box, paid for, and taken to go. These options were available for only $1.00 per large scoop and Matthew loved that he could see what the food looked like before he chose it, so we went with this option. He picked out the Honey Chicken, the Sweet and Sour Chicken, and an egg roll. He cleverly bypassed any rice options because he hates it simply because he finds it very difficult to eat and frankly not worth the effort.

Why is he wearing noise-cancelling headphones? We were at a festival that shot off a 
gigantic gun every couple of minutes. Matthew has sensitive hearing and freaks out whenever
he hears the gun. Our solution? Walk around looking like a dork and simultaneously be completely 
deaf for the day. Worked like a charm and he actually enjoyed wearing them!

He enjoyed that meal so much that it has become a little tradition to stop by for lunch if he has a day off from school. I'm thrilled that he likes to eat something besides the typical cheeseburgers and pizza.

The girls, on the other hand, are not as enamored with the Chinese restaurant as Matthew. Typically, I'll pick up the Chinese for Matthew and then head home to serve Lucy and Emma a peanut butter sandwich. They do enjoy the fortune cookies although if I don't intercept her first, Lucy tends to eat the fortunes.

My favorite place to lunch with my girls is Panera. Emma especially loves the pleasant atmosphere, the fireplaces, the calm jazzy music playing in the background. Both girls love choosing our table and then feasting on a carb-centered meal of bagels, fruit, and milk. Emma chats away about the things floating through her little mind and Lucy laughs, chatters, and points gleefully. It's an entirely enjoyable experience.

Whenever I go to Panera, I usually order the Mediterranean Veggie sandwich. It's simply amazing. If you haven't tried it yet, you should. This fall, however, I decided to branch out a little and tried Panera's new sandwich - the Turkey Apple and Cheddar sandwich. It's freshly sliced turkey piled high on cranberry-walnut bread with apple slaw, Vermont cheddar, and a horseradish-mustard spread. I was completely blown away by it.

After making this sandwich, I still had half a loaf of cranberry-walnut bread left. What better opportunity to recreate that sandwich? I made a basic sweet slaw, thinly sliced up some honeycrisp apples, and whipped up the horseradish sauce. I already had a brick of Vermont white cheddar in my fridge and some leftover turkey in the fridge so within minutes this sandwich was ready. I think the homemade version was even better than Panera's. Sweet, salty, and crunchy - so many textures and such incredible flavor. I served the sandwiches for dinner along with additional apple slices and soup. The whole family was happy! This just might be my new favorite sandwich.

Turkey, Apple and Cheddar Sandwich
inspired by Panera Bread

For the slaw:
4 cups thinly sliced green cabbage (not chopped)
1/4 cup thinly sliced red onion
1/2 cup mayonnaise
3 tablespoons sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
Pinch of Pepper
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon cider vinegar

For the Horseradish-Mustard Sauce:
1/2 cup mayonnaise
3 tablespoons prepared horseradish
3 tablespoons Dijon mustard

To Finish the Sandwich:
Sliced Turkey
Cranberry-Walnut Bread
Thin Apple Slices (I like Honeycrisp or Braeburn)
Generous Slices of Vermont White Cheddar

To make the slaw, combine the cabbage and onion in a bowl. In a separate, smaller bowl whisk together the mayonnaise, sugar, salt, pepper, lemon juice, and vinegar. Pour over the cabbage and toss gently to coat. Taste and adjust seasonings as needed. Set aside for about 30 minutes while gathering the other sandwich ingredients.

For the horseradish-mustard sauce, whisk together all ingredients. Set aside.

To make the sandwiches, spread the horseradish-mustard sauce on each slice of bread. Layer one slice with cheddar, the sliced turkey, a few apple slices, and a generous scoop of slaw. Press the second half of bread on top of the slaw and cut the sandwich in half. Enjoy!