December 23, 2012

Naughty to Nice Cookies

This has been a slow blogging month for me as the Hubs and I cram in some time together before his upcoming deployment (you can check out some of our Christmas photos here). I'm hoping to be back in the swing of things soon, but I couldn't let Christmas pass by without even one recipe post.

The Hubs and I don't normally exchange gifts. Instead, we like to create memories. You know the stuff I'm talking about... driving around to see the lights, taking the dog to visit Santa (yes, we are those people!), and watching Christmas movies while drinking hot cocoa. 

Another of our traditions is eating like pigs, then groaning about the weight gain. We like to spread the love around by delivering cookies to all our friends too! This also provides the Hubs with an excuse to "taste-test" all the cookies. After all, we wouldn't want to deliver a poor quality product, now would we?

Because I appreciate your readership so much, I'm going to let you in on my extra-secret, extra-AWESOME chocolate chip cookie recipe. Take these to any gathering, Christmas-time or not, and I guarantee you'll be the hit of the party. These are also the best way to get yourself off of the 'naughty' list and back on Santa's good side... even the big guy in the red suit can't resist my chocolate chip cookies! 



Mmmmmm..... cooooookieeeeessss. I know you can buy the pre-made cookie dough and have baked goodness in minutes, but trust me... these babies are worth a little extra effort. I usually make a double (even triple!) batch, they go that fast. Try the recipe just once. You will never go back to the pre-made junk.

Here's your ingredients:


All the basics: Flour, sugar (brown and white), vanilla, butter, baking soda, salt, eggs, walnuts, cream of tartar (that's my secret ingredient!), and...



... zee chocolate chips! I use three different kinds: regular-sized semi-sweet morsels, chocolate chunks, and mini chips. You can pick just one if you really want to, but I have to warn you...

The cookies won't be the same.

I could lie and say it's no big deal, but the truth is the chocolate chip variety is part of what makes this cookie special. Don't screw it up people!

Let's start simple. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Easy, right?

Next, you're going to cream together a cup of softened butter with 1 cup white sugar and 1 cup brown sugar (packed). This step is VERY important to a light and fluffy cookie. There is a handy video tutorial on YouTube if you'd like to watch, but basically: beat the softened butter until fluffy, then slowly add in your sugars. Continue to beat until completely incorporated, being careful not to overmix. I really meant to take photos for you, but...

I forgot. I blame it on the cookie madness. I was too anxious for warm, ooey, gooey, yummy deliciousness!

Next, beat two eggs into your mix one at a time, then add in 2 teaspoons of vanilla. This recipe does contain nuts (later), but I know many people don't like the texture. If you're one of those, you could leave out the nuts altogether and substitute 1 teaspoon of your vanilla for a teaspoon of almond extract instead. That way, you get a light nutty flavor without the actual nuts.

Now, mix together 1 teaspoon of baking soda with 2 teaspoons of hot water. I don't know why we do this technically, but I do know it's some sort of chemical reaction necessary for good cookies. Yours will look a little something like this (though not exactly like this since mine settled a bit while I fumbled with the camera):



Add this mixture to your batter along with 1/2 teaspoon of salt, and beat to combine.

At this point, I put my mixer down. I don't know if this makes a difference in the cookies, but I like to work the rest by hand. You do what you gotta do folks, but don't blame me if you continue with the mixer and your cookies turn into mutants, kay?

Stir 3 cups of all-purpose flour, along with 1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar, into your batter.



If you don't have the cream of tartar on hand, no worries. It doesn't change the flavor of your cookies at all. However, it does make them all puffy like those cool cookies you see at fancy bakeries. I like being fancy once in a while. Plus, I look like a genius to all my friends, when the cream of tartar really did all the work.

Now, we get to add the good stuff. Use a combination of chocolate chips (remember: semi-sweet morsels, chunks, and mini chips), about 2 cups. If you're going to add walnuts (I always do), use about 1 cup.


As you can see, I pretty much pulverize the walnuts. This would be a whole lot easier if I had a food processor, but I don't (not yet anyway!). I like some of the nuts to be powder-like, and the rest to be itsy, bitsy pieces. This adds great flavor without all the crunchiness larger pieces can add. You can chop yours however you like, but try this method once and see what you think.

About now, your dough should look something like this:


Try not to eat all of it before baking, ok?

You'll also notice there is a large proportion of chips to dough. This is a good thing! After all, it's called a chocolate chip cookie, right? Right.

At this point, most recipes will tell you to drop the dough by rounded tablespoon onto a cookie sheet.

I'm not going to tell you that.

Instead, I'm going to tell you to make great, heaping balls of dough, easily two tablespoons. They should look a bit like this:



If you want to make the smaller kind, that's ok too. But I like 'em big, like the bakery, remember?

Bake the cookies for 8-12 minutes (depending on size) until the edges are lightly browned.

Remember: Your cookies continue to bake after they leave the oven. Don't overbake!

Cool 2 minutes on the cookie sheet, then remove to a wire rack.

Eat half a dozen cookies, then feel guilty and bake more.

Ok, you don't have to follow that last instruction, but it's usually what happens in this house! Your cookies should look a little something like this when they're done:



NOM NOM NOM NOM... oh boy, now I want cookies!!

To store, place your cooled cookies in the container of your choice and cover with a bit of plastic wrap. On top of the plastic wrap, place a piece of bread torn into pieces.

I KNOW this sounds weird, but it works! The bread will keep your cookies moist and delicious, I promise. When the bread is dried out, you know it's time to replace it. Of course, the cookies never last long enough to actually need the bread replaced, but it's good to know anyway. This trick works with all kinds of baked goods. Just be sure not to place the bread in direct contact with your goods, or they could become soggy.

Viola, you have naughty to nice cookies ready for Santa's visit! These are also great for bribing husbands and kids. Or taking to a neighbor as a homemade gift. Or to a party. Or you could hoard them all for yourself, you wouldn't be the first to do it!

I love the versatility, seriously.

I hope all of my readers have a fabulous Christmas this year. Bake cookies with your kids, snuggle on the couch with your significant other, love just hanging out with the family... soak up every minute! We military spouses know that each second is precious, because you never know when your loved one will be called away to do his (or her) duty.

I appreciate each and every one of you, thanks for reading and keeping up with my crazy life. Happy cooking and merry Christmas! As always, I've included the standard recipe for you at the end of the post.


Busted, kissing Santa Claus! I told ya these cookies would get you on the nice list ;)




Thanks for reading, everyone!
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The Standard Form:


Chocolate Chip Cookies

Ingredients:

1 cup butter, softened
1 cup white sugar
1 cup packed brown sugar
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons hot water
½ teaspoon salt
2 cups semi-sweet chips (use a mix of chips, chunks, and minis)
1 cup finely chopped walnuts
½ teaspoon cream of tartar

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Cream together the butter, white sugar, and brown sugar until smooth. Beat in the eggs one at a time, then add the vanilla. Dissolve the baking soda in the hot water, then add this mixture to the batter along with the salt. Combine completely.

Stir in the flour, cream of tartar, chocolate chips, and walnuts.

Drop the dough by the heaping tablespoons onto ungreased cookie sheets. Bake 8-12 minutes or until the edges are lightly browned. Cool 2 minutes on cookie sheet, then transfer to cooling racks.




December 4, 2012

Bosque del Apache

The Hubs and I love to get out and about, exploring our world. We've seen big cities, and will likely see more, but what we really love is the great outdoors.

Now, I'm not exactly an outdoors-woman. I'd be perfectly happy to... ahem... "camp" at the lodge. What I enjoy most is the hiking, and an opportunity to photograph the wildlife. And then I want to sit in front of the fire at my lodge, with a cup of hot cocoa, and a great book. This makes sense to me. 

Sleeping in a tent, with bears and spiders and God knows what out there? Not so much.

There are many places, no matter where you live, to explore the great outdoors. Heck, even if you're in Manhattan, get out and wander Central Park! There are always ways, you just have to look for the opportunity. 

A few hours from our home is a bird sanctuary. The Hubs and I have driven past it on various road trips, but never taken the time to stop. Until, our recent trip to Albuquerque where everything went wrong. Since we couldn't see what we were there for, we adjusted our plans to stop at Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge instead. 

We enjoyed our short stop there so much, we decided to go back again during the winter months, when the Bosque is home to thousands of Sandhill cranes, snow geese, and a variety of other wildlife. Although we didn't attend the Festival of the Cranes, there were still thousands of birds to see every day. 

For my first visit back to the Bosque, I made the road trip with my gal pals, Abby and Becky. We left in the middle of the night, hoping to arrive in time for sunrise. 

We made it! 

The Flight Deck

Our journey began at the Flight Deck, just a short distance down the 12-mile tour loop. A thick fog blanketed the water, providing cover for the cranes we could hear, but couldn't see. Dozens of photographers were scattered in various locations around the loop. Avid bird watchers came armed with binoculars and cameras.

Photographers and bird watchers waiting for a glimpse of cranes 

The heavy fog prohibited even the most basic photography. We couldn't see the cranes with the naked eye, but we could certainly hear them calling to each other. Becky, Abby, and I were struggling with our disappointment. We had hoped to see the cranes take flight, a common occurrence at the Bosque.

Just as we were about to give up, shadowy figures emerged from the fog. The sun rose higher, clearing our line of sight.



The cranes! Rather than take flight, the birds were walking across the shallow water, in search of their breakfast.

Our excitement returned. Camera shutters clicked. Our middle-of-the-night, impromptu road trip had been worth it!

The plan was to stay for a few hours only, then return home. Becky was due back at work, and we were all running on very little sleep. Instead, we began the tour loop. How long could 12 miles really take, especially by car?  

Um... it takes a lot longer than you would think!

Every pull-off offered new views and different wildlife. The cranes weren't the only creatures awake. Snow geese, mule deer, hawks, eagles, and coyotes... these are just a few of the species we spotted.

Thousands of snow geese take flight 

Hours later, we finally started the journey home. Becky and I had plans to return later in the week, with the Hubs in tow. This time, I couldn't wait to see sunset at the Bosque!

I wasn't disappointed. Not only did we see sunset, but the sunrise as well. AND, I tried my hand at star photography for the very first time!

Highway 1, leading to Bosque del Apache 


Granted, it's not a perfect picture, but I think it's ok for my first time. The experience was the best part.  Driving into the middle of nowhere, in the dark, and listening to the coyotes howl... quite the adventure!

During the daylight hours, we spent more time photographing the birds. I quickly grew to envy some of my fellow photographers, with their giant lenses that could reach out and touch someone. My 18-250mm lens was a baby in comparison.

Lucky for me, the birds flew overhead so often, I had plenty of opportunity to capture their images.

A Sandhill Crane in flight 

The Hubs (without a camera) was enthralled with the birds too! The binoculars seemed permanently glued to his eyes. Several times, he referred me to The Big Year, a movie we recently watched together. I'm pretty sure he wants to try for a Big Year himself once he retires (If you're wondering what a Big Year is, check out the movie)!

He took a few breaks to film the birds. Their calls pierced the air, soothing at times and annoyed at others. When a coyote (or a stray human) came too close, the birds screeched their displeasure, even taking to the air at times. When not in sight of the birds, you could still sense their mood easily, simply by listening to the pattern of their calls.

video


The video shows the snow geese flying in at sunrise, a gorgeous sight.

After repeated trips to the Bosque, I can now say it's one of my favorite places we've visited. I might even let the Hubs talk me into that Big Year one of these days!

I'd love to show you all my photos from the trip. If you'd like to see more, be sure to check out the Facebook Photo Album!

As always,


Thanks for reading, everyone!
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Snow Geese in flight 


   

December 3, 2012

CBS Baking Show

It was just an ordinary day as I sat at my computer, working on a new blog post (it's coming soon!). Imagine my surprise when I opened my email and found...

An invitation to audition for a baking show!

As excited as I was, I am unable to audition for the show myself (for various reasons). HOWEVER, there is no good reason why YOU can't!

Are you a home baker with hidden talents? Have you always wanted to be on tv? Well, CBS is hosting an open casting call for their new show... you should check it out!!!


To apply, or just to gather more information, check out the website at: http://cbsbakingshow.com/

I hope some of you take the chance... get out there and audition! If you decide to go for it, please let everyone here at Army Life know how your experience goes.

Happy auditioning, my friends! As always,



Thanks for reading, everyone!
Follow me on Facebook @ OurArmyLifeAccordingToTheWife
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