Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Merry Christmas through the Years

Merry Christmas!
That was the chronological collage. I was having so much fun that I decided to break it down a bit to make the pictures easier to see, although I guess they're still kind of tiny. Oh, well, I guess you'll just have to come visit and see the originals in the photo albums!
Apartment living - 1982 to 1990
Our first two houses - 1991 to 1999
Pembroke Pines - 2000 and 2001
 And then the boys started leaving on their missions!
Brandon - 2002 to 2010
In 2011, Christmas was on a Sunday. It was the first time we'd been together in years, so we had to make time for a quick family picture after church.
It may never happen again, but if it does I sure hope we remember to take another picture!

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Favorite Christmas Traditions

I'm preparing this post ahead of time, because unlike last year, we expect to be having too much fun with visiting children and grandchildren to have time to update the blog in real time. However, I'm sure we'll be doing the same traditions which include:

1988 - getting Santa's cookies ready

Here are a couple of the recipes we've used in the past - Favorite Cinnamon Rolls and Delicious Cinnamon Rolls.

I hope you've enjoyed your preparations for Christmas this year. I know that I have. Here are a few pictures I found that didn't get used in previous posts. This first one shows some of the crocheted decorations we made, including the tree (on the floor to the right of Jeff), the granny square stockings and red ball ornaments. I'm not sure if Steven is screaming because he's happy or sad. What do you think?
Cute Brad!
Cute Jeff!

Finally, we hope you've all given Santa your wish lists, and that they all come true! 
Michelle - 2004
Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

Monday, December 23, 2013

Delivering Goodies

Traditionally we spend the Monday before Christmas delivering treats to the neighbors for Family Home Evening. Along with an assortment of the previously posted cookies and/or candies, we often add some quick bread to the plate. Here are some of our favorite recipes:
Lemon-Glazed Poppy Seed Bread

Easy Banana Bread

Pear Bread
We often use this for the "Partridge in a Pear Tree" if we do a 12 Days of Christmas activity.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Counting Presents

We're getting closer and closer to the special day! One of the things our kids loved to do was count and organize the presents under the tree. I guess that's just part of the anticipation and excitement, and so it didn't bother me. I wish, though, that I took more pictures, because this definitely wasn't something Michelle thought up all on her own!

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Cookie Countdown - Spritz Cookies

Look at that - there's a picture of me (and my mother-in-law) in the photo album! I'm not sure what's in the pan, but the Snowball and Spritz cookies are cooling on the racks. Somewhere, somehow we received a cookie press, and once a year we get it out to make Christmas tree cookies. Here's the recipe we use:

Basic Spritz Cookies

1/2 cup butter or margarine, softened
1/4 cup shortening
3/4 cup sugar
1 egg
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 1/2 cups flour
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt

Cream butter and shortening together. Gradually add sugar and continue beating until light, about 5 minutes. Mix in the egg and vanilla (and food coloring if desired). Combine flour, baking powder and salt and add to other mixture in three batches. Dough will be stiff. Fill cookie press and form the cookies. Bake for 10-12 minutes at 375 degrees, being careful not to over bake. Makes about 4 dozen trees.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Cookie Countdown - Cookie Variety

Here are just a few other cookies we've made over the years. Some of them are more labor intensive than others, so we don't do every recipe every year!

Christmas Balls

1 cup butter or margarine
1/3 cup sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 cups flour
1 cup finely chopped nuts
red and/or green colored sugar

Cream butter and sugar with vanilla. Blend in flour and nuts. Shape into 1" balls. Roll in colored sugar and bake at 350° for 20 minutes. Cool well before removing from pan.
Note: This is basically the Snowball recipe, but the cookies are rolled in colored sugar instead of powdered sugar.

Pastel Cookies

3/4 cup shortening
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
3 eggs
1 (3 oz) package jello, any flavor
2 3/4 cups flour
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder

Cream shortening and sugar. Beat in vanilla and eggs. Add remaining ingredients. Drop by teaspoonful on cookie sheet. Press down with a glass dipped in sugar. Bake at 375° for 8 minutes. Makes 4 dozen.
Note: Usually this is a spring-time treat, but if we need an extra bit of "green" for the cookie platter, this is an easy cookie to make.
Snow Covered Almond Crescents

1 cup butter or margarine
3/4 cup powdered sugar
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
1 3/4 cups flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup oats
1/2 cup finely chopped almonds
powdered sugar

Cream butter and sugar with almond extract. Mix in flour and salt. Add oats and almonds. Using level measuring tablespoonsfuls, shape dough into crescents. Bake on ungreased cookie sheet for 14-17 minutes at 350­°. Remove to wire rack. Sift powdered sugar generously over warm cookies. Cool completely. Makes about 3 dozen.
Note: Oatmeal adds interesting texture. It's easier to dip the tops of the cookies in a bowl of sugar than to sprinkle them.
Cinnamon Stars

1 cup butter or margarine
2 cups brown sugar
2 tablespoons milk
2 eggs
1 cup finely chopped filberts or walnuts
4 cups flour
1 tablespoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon salt

Cream butter and sugar. Add milk, eggs and nuts and beat hard one minute.  Sift the dry ingredients and add in fourths. Cover and chill the dough until firm. Roll dough out to 1/8" and cut with star-shaped cutter. Transfer to lightly greased cookie sheet. Bake at 350° for 10-12 minutes. Cool on wire racks. Makes about 7 dozen cookies.

Thank you, Google, for the pictures.

Oh, and we can't forget regular sugar cookies!

Our Favorite Sugar Cookie (aka Santa Claus Cookies)

4 cups sifted flour
½ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt
1 cup butter or margarine, softened
2 cups sugar
3 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla

Combine dry ingredients and set aside. Cream butter until smooth. Gradually add and beat in the sugar and continue beating until light. Add the eggs, one at a time, and beat well after each addition. Stir in the vanilla. Sift and add the dry ingredients in fourths and stir after each addition to blend well. Cover and chill for at least 2 hours.

Set the oven to 350°. Grease the cookie sheets lightly. Roll out the dough, a little at a time, on a lightly floured pastry cloth or board, to a thickness of ¼ inch. Cut with a floured cookie cutter. Carefully transfer cut-outs to the cookie sheets. Bake 8-10 minutes or until lightly browned around the edges. Remove and cool, then decorate with frosting. About 4 dozen.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Cookie Countdown - Gingerbread Men

When Jeff was in kindergarten his school class made gingerbread men cookies, and his teacher sent home the recipe. Normally our family doesn't care for gingerbread cookies, but surprisingly, everybody actually liked this recipe. Maybe you will too.
Gingerbread Men Cookies

1 cup shortening
1 cup brown sugar
2 eggs
2 small boxes butterscotch pudding mix*
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon baking soda
3 cups flour

Cream shortening and sugar; mix in egg. Add dry pudding mix, flour and spices. Mix together. Roll dough 1/4" thick and cut with 4" cookie cutter. Decorate with raisins. Bake at 350° for about 10 minutes. Makes 30 cookies (or about 12 if using 6" cookie cutter).

** Can substitute 1/3 cup brown sugar, 2 tablespoons dry milk, 2 tablespoon cornstarch and 1/2 teaspoon ginger for one package of pudding mix. You could double it and substitute for both packages of pudding, but then the dough isn't as dark or flavorful. The half homemade/half store version works great.
The original recipe - too bad the helper didn't know how to spell Jeff's name.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Cookie Countdown - Brownie Variations

We've made a lot of cookie platters over the years, and brownies are always a hit. They're also super easy to make and you can make quite a few in a short time. They even look pretty just by themselves. However, in order to make them just a bit more festive, sometimes we do take the time to decorate them. Here are some ideas - most of which we've tried - courtesy of a google search.
1 - Top with regular white frosting and sprinkle crushed candy canes on top
2 - Cut brownies into triangles and decorate to look like a tree
3 - Be sure to add chopped pecans to the brownie batter, then drizzle with caramel and more pecans
4 - Top brownies with a mint layer and then chocolate - Six Sisters has the recipe I remember my mom using
5 - Cut brownies into rectangles and decorate to look like a tree

If you need a recipe for the actual brownie layer, here's our favorite. We also finally created a single batch version of the mix Steven likes:


3/4 cup flour
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup sugar
1/3 cup cocoa powder
1/3 cup shortening
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla

Combine dry ingredients then cut shortening in. Stir in the eggs and vanilla. It will be stiff. Pour (or plop) into a greased 8x8" pan and bake for 18-20 minutes in a 350° oven.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Cookie Countdown - Wayne's Favorite Christmas Cookie

In December we'll call these cookies Snowballs, although most of the time I call them Russian Teacakes. They're also known as Mexican Wedding Cakes. However, whatever you want to call them, they symbolize Christmas cookies to Wayne, so it's the one cookie we make every year.  Here's the original post.
And here's the recipe so you don't have to go clicking around:

Mexican Wedding Cakes
or Russian Teacakes
or Snowballs
or Whatever-you-want-to-call-them

1 cup butter or margarine, softened
½ cup powdered sugar
1 tsp vanilla
2 ¼ cups white flour (can substitute half with wheat flour)
¼ tsp salt
¾ cup finely chopped nuts.

Mix thoroughly butter, sugar and vanilla. Work in flour, salt and nuts until the dough holds together. Shape into 1” balls and place them on cookie sheet. Bake at 400° for 8-10 minutes. While warm roll in powdered sugar. Cool and roll in sugar again. 

Monday, December 16, 2013

Candy Countdown - Caramel Popcorn

One of my childhood memories is that every year at Christmas time our home teacher would bring over two bags of special popcorn - one red and one green. I don't remember his name, or how long he visited us, but I do remember the delicious popcorn! I was thrilled when my college roommate shared her caramel popcorn recipe with me so that I was able to recreate that childhood memory. Of course, she used brown sugar to give it the caramel flavor, yet at the holidays I use white sugar and food coloring to help it fit the theme. Here's the tutorial I made earlier.

Easy Caramel Popcorn

2 batches popped corn (use about 2/3 cup kernels)
1/2 cup butter or margarine
1 cup brown sugar
1/3 cup white corn syrup

While popcorn is popping, melt the butter in a small saucepan. Stir in the sugar and corn syrup and bring to a boil. Boil for two minutes. Pour immediately over the popcorn and stir well. Pour onto wax paper to let cool. Better if eaten as soon as it won't burn your tongue, but it does keep okay in a covered container.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Candy Countdown - Chocolate Bark

Rocky Road was so successful because it was so easy. Chocolate barks fall into the same category. In fact, Rocky Road is just a variation of chocolate bark. This is something that was often on our "activity countdown calendar" because it doesn't take a lot of time to get great results. Here are some of our favorite combinations:

Tiger Butter
Melt 1/2 pound white chocolate (or almond bark) and stir in 1/4 cup peanut butter until smooth. Spread on a waxed-paper lined cookie sheet. Melt 1/2 cup chocolate chips and drizzle over, swirling just a bit with a table knife. Refrigerate until hardened and break into pieces to serve.
Cranberry-Kissed Chocolate Cookie Bark
Melt 8 squares semi-sweet baking chocolate and stir in 5 crumbled Oreo cookies. In another bowl, melt 6 squares white baking chocolate and stir in 5 additional crumbled Oreo cookies. Alternate dropping spoonfuls of the two mixtures onto a wax paper covered cookie sheet and marble slightly. Immediately sprinkle with 1/4 cup dried cranberries and press in lightly. Refrigerate about one hour or until firm and break into pieces.

Candy Cane Bark
Melt chocolate, chocolate chips or almond bark. Stir in crushed candy canes. Pour onto wax paper and let cool to harden. Experiment with different flavored (white or milk or dark) chocolate and either drizzle a contrasting color on top before it hardens, or make the chocolate two-layered.

Fruit and Nut Bark
Melt chocolate. Stir in chopped nuts and/or craisins or other dried fruit. Pour onto wax paper and let cool to harden. The combination possibilities are endless!

This combination: 6 ounces almond bark, 6 ounces chocolate chips, 3/4 cup Craisins, 3/4 cup sliced almonds
"Thin Mint Cookies"
Dip Ritz crackers in melted mint-flavored chocolate.
(Note: 1/12 pounds almond bark makes 3 dozen.)

"Butter Fingers"
Dip Cheeze-It crackers in melted chocolate.
(Note: 1/2 pound almond bark makes 8 dozen.)

Pretzel Rods
Dip the ends of long pretzels in melted chocolate and then roll in chopped nuts, sprinkles, crushed candy canes, etc. If desired, you can dip the pretzel in caramel first and when the caramel's hardened dip in the chocolate.
This was the Valentine's Day version, but it works for Christmas, too.
Rolo Turtles
Place an unwrapped Rolo on a mini pretzel. Bake at 350° got 3-5 minutes or until softened. Carefully press an M&M or pecan half on top of each Rolo and let cool.
This was the Halloween version, but it also works for Christmas too.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Candy Countdown - Cranberry Clusters

I first saw these in a Christmas magazine years ago and thought they would be fun to try. They're delightfully different, and very easy to make, and it was a no-brainer to add them to our annual Christmas Candy list. Give them a try yourself sometime. (And go here for more pictures and here for a fun story.)
Cranberry Clusters

2/3 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
1/8 cup corn syrup
2 teaspoons water
3/4 cup dried cranberries
1/4 cup chopped pecans, optional

Melt 1/3 cup chocolate chips with the corn syrup in the microwave. (This takes 30 seconds.) Add the water and other 1/3 cup chocolate and stir until smooth. Stir in the cranberries and nuts. Dollop onto waxed paper. Chill until firm.

Note this was originally posted in the recipe blog January 2010.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Candy Countdown - Fudge Variations

In addition to Rocky Road, my mom made fudge every year during December. She used the recipe on the jar of marshmallow creme, and so that's what I use. It's a delicious recipe, and over the years we've made a few changes that make it even better.
Fantasy Fudge

3 cups sugar
3/4 cup butter or margarine
2/3 cup evaporated milk
2 cups semi-sweet chocolate chips
7 ounces marshmallow crême
1 cup chopped nuts
1 teaspoon vanilla

Combine sugar, margarine and milk in saucepan and heat to boiling. Boil for five minutes, stirring constantly. Remove from heat. Add chocolate chips and stir until melted. Stir in the remaining ingredients. Pour into a greased 9x13" pan. Cool at room temperature. Makes 3 pounds.

Cookie Fudge
Instead of nuts, stir in 1 cup chopped cookies. Oreo's are our favorite, but we've also tried Keebler Grasshopper cookies and chocolate chip cookies. I bet peanut butter cookies would taste great as well. It's also possible to vary the type of chocolate chips used. We've made it with white chocolate chips when adding Oreos, and with half milk chocolate chips when using Grasshopper cookies.

Double-Decker Peanut Butter Fudge
Use the original recipe without the nuts and substitute 1 cup peanut butter chips for the chocolate chips. Before starting, place the peanut butter chips in a bowl and prepare a 9x9" pan instead of the larger one. After boiling the sugar mixture for five minutes, add the marshmallow crême and vanilla and mix well.  Pour half of that mixture into the bowl with the peanut butter chips, and add the semi-sweet chips to the remaining mixture in the pan. Stir both mixtures (one at a time) until the chips melt. Then pour the peanut butter layer into the prepared dish and top with the chocolate layer. When cool, cut into 1-inch pieces.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Candy Countdown - Almond Roca

Almond Roca, otherwise known as English Toffee, also brings back a lot of memories. I don't know if it was his favorite candy or not, but I associate the pink container of Almond Roca with my dad. He seemed to get one everyone, and I certainly felt special when he offered to share it with me. We also had one dear friend many years ago who would bring us homemade English Toffee each December. That was near the top of the list of things I missed when we moved to Florida.

So, for the past ten years or so I've been on a quest to try making it myself. Usually my attempts are failures, even if the candy is still edible. (For example, see here.) However, a couple of years ago someone posted a tutorial which we tried. Apparently it worked that first year, although I don't have a record of it. But I tried it again this year, and have made four successful batches of toffee. I think I can stop looking for a recipe now. And I hope I didn't just jinx myself, because this is what Wayne wants to take to his co-workers this year!

Homemade Almond Roca

1 cup butter
1 rounded cup sugar
2 tablespoons water
1 cup sliced almonds
2/3 cup chocolate chips
3 tablespoons finely chopped almonds

Line a 9x13" pan with foil and butter (or Pam) it. Melt the butter in a thick-bottomed 4-quart saucepan. Add the sugar and water and cook on medium-high until it reaches the toffee stage.** Stir in the sliced almonds and pour into the prepared pan. Sprinkle chocolate chips on top and let sit for a few minutes to melt. Then spread chocolate with a spatula and sprinkle with remaining chopped almonds. Cool until hardened. Remove from pan and break into pieces.

**Isn't that a helpful instruction? Here's where you need to go to the tutorial. It outlines the three stages the candy goes through - runny and buttery, "cheesy", and runny and gold caramel colored.
Tasty Kitchen Blog: Almond Roca. Guest post by Amy Johnson of She Wears Many Hats, recipe submitted by TK member mdatwell. Tasty Kitchen Blog: Almond Roca. Guest post by Amy Johnson of She Wears Many Hats, recipe submitted by TK member mdatwell.
Tasty Kitchen Blog: Almond Roca. Guest post by Amy Johnson of She Wears Many Hats, recipe submitted by TK member mdatwell. Tasty Kitchen Blog: Almond Roca. Guest post by Amy Johnson of She Wears Many Hats, recipe submitted by TK member mdatwell.
I've never had success using a candy thermometer, so this works for me. On two of my recent batches at the same second I decided it had reached the "caramel" stage, I smelled sugar burning, and I figured that was a good clue to take it off the stove. I also gradually lowered the heat as it was boiling away (total time about 15 minutes). I have an electric smooth top stove that seems to be on the high side as far as temperature goes, and it also retains heat well, so this seems to work. It does take some experimentation, but you can do it!

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Candy Countdown - Virtual Style

When looking for ideas to write about this month, I compiled a list of favorite cookies and treats that we like to make in December. It turned at to be quite a list. So, for the next ten days, I'll share some of those with you. First we'll do some favorite candy treats, and then some favorite cookies.
Not the prettiest picture, but you can see how it got the name of Rocky Road.
Rocky Road needs to start it off, because that's the candy I remember from my childhood. It's what we would take to our school teachers and other friends. I remember my mom ordering a 10-pound block of Ghiradelli chocolate from San Francisco. Then she would hack at it with a knife to get it into smaller, 1-pound sections, and each of us kids would get a chance to melt some in the double-boiler before stirring in the nuts and marshmallows. Of course, licking the spoon at the end was an extra special treat.

You can go to this old post for the step-by-step instructions. Basically, though, for each pound of melted chocolate, you stir in 3/4 cup of chopped nuts and 3 cups of mini marshmallows. Then pour it into a 9" square buttered pan and chill until solid. Then cut into whatever size pieces you desire. It would be nice to use the fancy chocolate, but we're just fine with Hershey's milk chocolate chips (1 1/2 bags equals about one pound). That way we can have more of it!
I'm thinking I need to make a batch today so I can try taking a prettier, more festive picture. What do you think?
How's that?

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Gingerbread Houses

Happy Birthday, David!!!
One of the things we liked to do during December was to make gingerbread (or graham cracker) candy houses. Often we would combine that with David's birthday celebration, and that just made it even more fun.
Sometimes friends were involved, and sometimes they weren't.
1994 with Grandma
Sometimes we made them at home, and sometimes they were made at a Primary or Mutual activity,
2001 - David and Brad's prize-winning house
or as a school project.  I wish I could find more pictures, because there have been some pretty creative ones made over the years.
2002 - Steven's creation at school
It was a neat surprise to wake up to this fun picture:
Photo: "Let's take a picture of your gingerbread house." So she did.
So glad that David's carrying on the tradition!

Monday, December 9, 2013

Homemade Ornaments and Decorations

Yesterday I highlighted a couple of decorations that we've made. This post will contain a whole bunch, because that's just something we like to do. Emptying the Christmas boxes always brings back great memories. You can see a few of our projects in this picture:
  • The original felt tree/ornament advent calendar (hanging on the closet door)
  • The Santa Wayne cross-stitched on a door mat using strips of fabric
  • A small ceramic Santa head Weston painted during a summer class
  • The coordinated stockings we made that year (1994)

Here are some more, included cross-stitch projects, painting and even some sewing. Some were done by Wayne, some by the kids, and some by all of us. Some were Relief Society projects, some came from our "Celebrations" cross-stitch book,  some were after-Christmas clearance craft kits, and a couple were ideas from somewhere else.

One very simple one we did after school one day was the little felt pillow, bottom left corner to the right of the much more complicated afghan. Another enjoyable one we did when Michelle was a teenager. That's the floss ornament next to the Santa at the top right. We simply filled an empty, clear ornament with short pieces of embroidery floss and finished it with a braided floss bow. (It took more floss than we expected, but I really like how they turned out.)
Even many years later, the stockings , ceramic Santas and wooden trees still look festive!