Monday, December 31, 2012

My Life in a Nutshell: 2012 in Review

“Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, today is a gift of God, which is why we call it the present.” – Bill Keane

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When I think about the past year, the adjectives that first pop to mind are ones like “unpleasant”, “difficult”, “unhealthy”, and other generally negative descriptions. It has not been a fun year for us. It has been chock full of “opportunities for personal growth” and trying to discover silver linings and make the most of what we have. It was our sickest year to date, hands down… we endured coughs, colds, fevers, asthma, allergic reactions, ear and eye  infections, tear duct surgery, croup, strep throat, suspected pneumonia, migraines, and 3 separate bouts of stomach flu, including our worst ever episode this past Christmas week. It has been a year full of creative solutions, of choosing to live without some of life’s luxuries, and of enjoying our people rather than our things. This is good, and I am so glad for it.

2011 had already been a challenging year for us, and my New Year’s mantra for 2012 was “Less is More.” This was a truly providential revelation for the year, unbeknownst to me at the time. Not only did we experience financial and emotional turmoil with an unexpected job transition for my husband but, in retrospect, I would have had very little “free time” to dedicate to specific goals. I’m grateful that I hadn’t given myself rigid expectations that would quickly have become unrealistic, and made me feel like a failure. We had decided to cut back our budgets and, by July of the year we had shaved our grocery spending by about 50-35%, switched from cable to Netflix, paid off a new car and thrown money at our mortgage principal in anticipation of a 2013 move. It was undeniably successful in terms of monetary responsibility, and the changes we made really enabled the job transition to be a phase rather than a catastrophic rethinking of our lifestyle. I am grateful that we were prepared for the worst, and that the worst didn’t happen.

We may not have had a ton of “fun” in the secular entertainment sense, but we are in a much better place, and we haven’t lost our sense of humor. I feel really prepared for 2013, come what may, and am ready to embrace the changes it will undoubtedly bring. I am planning to set some concrete goals, both personal and professional, but I also plan to be flexible with myself and realistic about what I will be able to accomplish knowing that this year will not be without its complications as well. So…

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Happy New Year!

“Hope smiles from the threshold of the year to come, whispering 'it will be happier'...” – Lord Tennyson

Thursday, December 20, 2012

From the Kitchen: Apricot Jam Bars (aka Split-Second Cookies)

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My vanity found these lovely (and tasty) cookies to add to my Christmas collection this year. I was planning to send cookies to a meeting at my husband’s new job as an act of gratitude and goodwill, and I wanted them to be very very pretty. I same an image of these on Chow.com and had to investigate. I tweaked them a bit, adding some orange extract to the dough to enhance the fruit flavors, and they turned out great. It’s hard to find cookies that can compete with chocolate crinkles and sugar cookies in the raw appeal department, but these are certainly contenders.

Apricot Jam Bars

Ingredients:

2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting the work surface
3/4 teaspoon fine salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
12 tablespoons unsalted butter (1 1/2 sticks), at room temperature
2/3 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup smooth jam (apricot was wonderful, but others would also work!)

Directions:

1. Heat the oven to 350°F and arrange 2 racks to divide the oven into thirds. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper; set aside.

2. Whisk the measured flour, salt, and baking powder in a medium bowl to aerate and remove any lumps; set aside.

3. Place the butter and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. Beat on medium speed until light and fluffy, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed, about 3 minutes. Stop the mixer, scrape down the paddle and the sides of the bowl, and add the egg and vanilla. Beat on medium speed until incorporated, about 1 1/2 minutes. Stop the mixer and scrape down the bowl.

4. Add the flour mixture and beat on low speed until the dough just comes together, about 45 seconds.

5. Turn the dough onto a floured work surface and form it into a disk. Divide the dough into 4 equal portions. Using your hands, roll each portion into a 10-by-1-inch log. Carefully transfer 2 of the logs onto each prepared baking sheet.

6. Using the handle of a wooden spoon, make a 1/2-inch-wide and 1/2-inch-deep trough in the center of each log, leaving a 1/2-inch border at each end.

7. Place the jam in a resealable plastic bag (snip off one bottom corner of the plastic bag, if using) and pipe the jam into each of the troughs.

8. Place both baking sheets in the oven and bake for 10 minutes. Rotate the baking sheets front to back and top to bottom and bake until the cookie logs are light golden brown around the bottom edges, about 10 to 12 minutes more. Place the baking sheets on wire racks and let the logs cool for 15 minutes.

9. Pick up 1 of the parchment sheets and carefully transfer the two logs to a cutting board. Cut each log on the diagonal into 1-inch-wide pieces. Transfer the cookies to the wire rack. Repeat with the remaining parchment sheet and cookie logs. Let the cookies cool completely. Store in an airtight container for up to 5 days.

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From the Kitchen: English Toffee Bars

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Drooling yet?  I don’t tend to get super excited about bar cookies, but I do have some that are pretty irresistible, and these are officially on that list. The recipe comes from mybakingaddiction.com… a great source for scrumptious recipes of all kinds.

English Toffee Bars

Ingredients:

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 cup packed light brown sugar

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter

1 cup pecan halves

Toffee Topping (recipes follows)

1 cup Hershey’s Milk Chocolate Chips

Directions:

1. Heat oven to 350°F.

2. Combine flour and brown sugar in large bowl. With pastry blender or fork, cut in butter until fine crumbs form (a few large crumbs may remain). Press mixture onto bottom of ungreased 13x9x2-inch baking pan (Note: I lined my pan with parchment paper before assembling these bars). Sprinkle pecans over crust. Prepare toffee topping; drizzle evenly over pecans and crust.

3. Bake 20 to 22 minutes or until topping is bubbly and golden; remove from oven. Immediately sprinkle milk chocolate chips evenly over top; press gently onto surface. Cool completely in pan on wire rack. Cut into bars. About 36 bars.

TOFFEE TOPPING: Combine 2/3 cup butter and 1/3 cup packed light brown sugar in small saucepan; cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until mixture comes to a boil. Continue boiling, stirring constantly, 30 seconds (Note: I cooked for about 3 minutes). Use immediately.

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Next up, Jam Bars…

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

From the Kitchen: Piped Royal Icing on Sugar Cookies and Gingerbread (with recipes)

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I had hoped to share this years cookies in a more leisurely way. I made them enough ahead of time (so they would be ready for several Christmas events), and even photographed them right away. But I guess it is my lot in life to always be optimistic about hectic times. I suppose that will serve me well over the long haul, but it doesn’t leave a lot of time for leisure when it comes to blogging.

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Back to the point (since we are on a schedule, after all, and there is much to do yet today)… here you see the piped Christmas cookies of 2012. I’ve been doing this for a while now, and have picked up some book-learnin’ type tips along the way. Nothing nearly so valuable, however, as practice practice practice. I always make my cookies thicker than recipes call for (about 3/8”, uncooked), I always undercook them a teeny tiny bit so they stay soft and chewy (just barely browning on the edges where they meet the cookie sheet), and I always use royal icing, not buttercream-type icings that don’t dry to a hard, durable finish. Not that I don’t love those kind too, for the record, but these travel well, freeze well, and look nice and neat when they are done. I recommend my favorite sugar cookie recipe (reposted below) and my favorite gingerbread recipe (posted here from last year),  if you want specifics.

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For the snowflake cookies, I played around with the basic round tips, in a size 3 and 5, I believe. The 3 is very small. I have to assume that there is a 2 and 1 which means the piped lines could get smaller still, but I don’t want to imagine that yet. I get cramps in my  hands from applying constant pressure to the icing bag, and I have to surmise that a smaller tip would make that even worse. But it was fun to see the difference. The size 5 tip allowed nice, well rounded lines and “blobs”, which helped create the bolder but less detailed snowflakes. The size 3 was critical in making the finer ones.

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The icing for all these cookies started the same… very smooth, “healing” (meaning it was fluid enough to flatten a single drop rather than leave a firm peak), but not so thin that it could run off the edge of the cookie. I made it using a very unscientific mixture of powdered sugar, meringue powder, vanilla extract and water. I mixed, tested, added more of something and repeated until it was right. I colored the present icing and simply spread it on with a spoon (very unglamorous), then sprinkled with white dots while wet and let it dry for about 24 hours before adding the ribbon. I should have added white coloring to the snowflake icing to help make the thin lines pop, but I didn’t. Next year. I remembered to do that for the sugar presents, and that was a key to making sure the ribbons looked white and not tinged with the underlying color. I also did a pearlescent wash on some of the snowflakes using Wilton’s pearl dust mixed with clear vanilla extract, and applied with a fine brush. It was subtle, but you can see it below…

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I get all of my food colors, pearl dusts, sprinkles, icing bags and tips, the occasional cookie cutter and all manner of other baking and candy-making supplies from Baker’s Nook. Their brick and mortar store is within walking distance of my house (dangerously close, perhaps?), and they have customer service that is simply not to be surpassed. They offer most of their extensive inventory online as well, and I can’t suggest them enough if you don’t have excellent  local resources to meet your every baking need. The wreath cookies below have been a huge hit, and were sooo easy (cut out with biscuit cutter, then cut smaller circle out of middle)… pipe a thick ring of icing, dip in Baker’s Nook sprinkles, and add a red bow.

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Traditional Sugar Cookies

Ingredients:

1/4 cup butter
1/2 cup shortening
1 cup white sugar
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt

Directions:

In a large bowl, cream together the butter, shortening and white sugar until smooth. Beat in the eggs one at a time, then stir in vanilla. Combine the flour, baking powder, and salt. Stir into the creamed mixture. Cover dough and chill for at least one hour. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Lightly grease cookie sheets, if necessary. On a lightly floured surface, roll out the dough to 1/4” thickness. Cut into desired shapes with floured cookie cutters. Place cookies 1 1/2” apart onto cookie sheets. Bake for 6 to 8 minutes (I like these soft, so I only bake them for 6 minutes). Remove cookies from baking sheets to cool on wire racks. Cool completely before icing.

I recommend Martha's recipe for Royal Icing unless you have your own system firmly in place for consistent results. Ice cooled cookies and decorate if desired. Place on waxed paper until icing is fully set. Enjoy!

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The next post will include some new cookie recipes! Be back soon!

Friday, December 14, 2012

My Life in a Nutshell: Sometimes Life Hands You Lemons

Well, that was an unfortunately long and unexpected pause in our conversation, wasn’t it?

Truth be told, it’s been a rough time here since I last posted. Very early in November, my darling, competent, hard-working husband was laid off of his job after almost 10 years of service. We were completely blind-sided. Definitely one of the worst days of our life up to the present. However, like most of life’s disappointments, it was tempered with humor and was, ultimately, short-lived. He had multiple offers in short order and has accepted a new position that is very promising, and we are gratefully adjusting to the changes that it has brought.

But even more than that has been going on, keeping me completely busy and away from blogging. The past 6 weeks have also involved unexpected and expensive house and auto repairs, as well as a death in our extended family. Additionally, we had been intending for some time to move locally within the next year, and we were surprised less than a week after the layoff by some interest in our house even though it isn’t actually on the market yet. Since both my husband and I were able to work on the house, we quickly finished up a large portion of our to-do-before-we-sell list of tasks. We ultimately received an offer, but we agreed that it was just not enough to justify putting our family out of a home before we were ready, and with so much else going on.

So here we are… not quite back to normal, still feeling a bit unsteady, doing our best to enjoy the Christmas season and make the most of our new opportunities. Honestly, 2011 was a tough year, and 2012 has not been an improvement. I am hoping with everything I have that 2013 is better!

Despite the drama, I have been doing things, making things and dreaming things even if I haven’t been writing about them, and I hope to share some of that with you soon. Two weeks ago I was staging and photographing my house. Last week I was tuckpointing failed masonry joints. This week I made dozens of Christmas cookies (definite success) and sewed myself a dress (questionable fail?). Next week will be largely employed in making Christmas gifts for my children and godchildren. I am looking forward to Christmas and a New Year!

To avoid having a picture-less post, here is the Christmas card I have designed but probably won’t actually send (2012: Less is more, right?). Many thanks to my generous and uber-talented friend Maureen for the great photo! Regrettably, about 10 seconds after the picture was taken, the baby tripped and mangled his angelic little face. That’s the sort of year we’ve been having.

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And yet we survive. It’s been long enough that all the facial lacerations have fully healed. I think we’re going to be OK…