December 24, 2014

Christmas Traditions: Twas The Night Before Christmas

For as long as I can remember, I've always read The Night Before Christmas on Christmas Eve. Do y'all do that too?

When my sisters were little, we would all snuggle together in bed and read the story. After I moved away, I still made a point of reading it with The Hubs. In fact, one year my family recorded themselves reading the storybook, so now I can listen to it as well!

Record your own storybook

One of our most treasured possessions though, is a gift we received for our very first Christmas together. My sister-in-law is a very talented embroiderer, and she made us this book:



Isn't it beautiful work???

Now, every Christmas, we look though our gorgeous, handmade copy of Twas The Night Before Christmas whilst we listen to my family read the story out loud from the other book.

Do you have any traditions like this? Comment below, peeps!


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December 23, 2014

Last Minute DIY Christmas Gifts

Ugh, I've been sick for weeks!! You know what that means? A lot less time to prepare gifts for friends and family! Also, lots less blogging. Luckily, the doc gave me some great drugs and I'm starting to feel better, whew.

Over the past several years especially, I've been leaning toward homemade Christmas gifts rather than purchased items. In my family, we always called it 'Make It or Bake It'. Some of the best gifts I've ever received have been handmade. They really come from the heart, and it shows.

I love giving out gifts to everyone, my neighbors and friends and family. Here are a couple suggestions if you're struggling with homemade gift ideas this year, and if you're as behind as me!

1. Homemade Taco Seasoning - This is one of my newest passions, mixing my own seasonings. Those packets in the grocery store? They can contain all kinds of weird stuff that I don't want in my body. Make a batch for your neighbors, and attach a set of directions, they'll love it!



2. We Whisk You A Merry Christmas - This is fantastic for teachers and neighbors. And I admit I totally got this idea from Pinterest. Fill a kitchen whisk with goodies, seal with plastic wrap and a bow, then attach a cute little card. Done!



3. Brown Sugar Scrub - Boy, do I love a homemade sugar scrub! This one smells like cookies, totally irresistible.




4. Naughty to Nice Chocolate Chip Cookies - Speaking of cookies, these are fab-u-lous! Despite being ill the past few weeks, I still made a double batch of these cookies, sick or not. They are that good peeps. In fact, this is one of the most popular recipes on the blog. Make a batch, wrap up those cookies, and start distributing to your neighbors and friends! I gave a bag out just this morning.




5. The Happy Jar! - This is, by far, the most popular post I've ever written. It might not be so good as a last minute gift, but it's still worth mentioning. You could always make mani version of this if you're short on time. Who doesn't love happy thoughts and inspiration right at their fingertips??



6. Homemade Caramel Sauce - You probably have all the ingredients for this easy sauce right in your fridge already! This takes no time to come together, and makes a great gift. And yes, I totally gave out a bunch of these this year too! Include a gift tag with my Quickie Apple Pie recipe, and you've got a hit. 





That's it for now folks! I'm planning to create more fun gifts throughout the year, so we'll add to this list next next Christmas. One last idea for you....


Attach a simple ornament to your gift bag for a little extra fun! You can find small packages of basic ornaments at the Dollar Tree that are perfect for this. Or, if you're in Europe and visiting the Christmas markets, seek out the small wooden ornaments that are so popular here.

Until next time, my friends.... Merry Christmas!



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Christmas Traditions: Trimming the Tree

When do you decorate your Christmas tree? I know many people like putting theirs up the day after Thanksgiving. The Hubs and I vary from year to year. Circumstances are always different. Heck, last year we didn't even have our house unpacked so there was no tree!

But this year, I am completely caught up in the holiday season. Our tree went up the weekend before Thanksgiving (no judgement, peeps!). There really is no place like Germany when it comes to Christmas. The spirit here has fully infected us, and I love it.



I'm determined to have a completely "German" Christmas tree by the time we move again. Meaning, I want all my ornaments to be purchased and from Germany. The Christmas markets are a perfect place to find my decorations. Here are a few of my favorites from this year:

Lace and ball

Crocheted Santa



From Rothenburg, Germany

I like picking things up wherever I go, and I'm leaning a bit more traditional in my tastes this year. I've also purchased many, many wooden ornaments, I'm obsessed!

I have one other new favorite 'ornament' this year, I wonder if you've seen them before? These cones are designed to hang on your tree, but they can be filled with candy and small gifts. The Hubs has already emptied the treats out of several of these on our tree!


What kind of ornaments do you like on your tree? Homemade, flashy, traditional? Comment below, my friends!


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December 3, 2014

Christmas Traditions: Stockings

Stockings have always been one of my favorite parts of Christmas! You can ask my mom, I always say Christmas wouldn't be the same without a stocking over the fireplace.

Here in Bavaria, they celebrate Saint Nikolaus Day on December 6th. On December 5th, children place a boot outside their doors and hope they've been good enough to receive gifts and candy from Saint Nikolaus. If they haven't, then a tree root will be placed in their boot instead. If they are particularly naughty, then the children will be punished by Krampus, or carried away in his sack!


Krampus in Neumarkt, Germany

Holy cow, I would be too scared to misbehave if that guy was coming to my door!!

Hubs and I won't be placing boots outside our day, but we'll be observing Saint Nikolaus Day. Since there are no kids in our house, our Lucy dog reaps all the benefits...





Yes, my dog has two stockings. What of it?  I mean, there is Saint Nikolaus Day and Christmas to think about!

Do you celebrate Saint Nikolaus Day or put your stockings out on Christmas Eve? Comment below, peeps. Until next time!



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November 30, 2014

Onion & Ham Frittata

After Thanksgiving (and Christmas), I always have so many leftovers I don't know what to do with them all! I'm not the only one with that problem either, I bet. We have a tendency to cook excessively during the holidays. No one wants guests going hungry, right? But then the after holiday dilemma begins...

How do I use up all these leftovers in a new and interesting way?

I have a few tricks up my sleeve, and today I want to share one with you. I particularly like using my leftovers to create breakfast.

Onion and ham frittata

One of the easiest breakfasts around is frittata. Not only do I get to use my cast iron skillet, which I adore, but these recipes are quick and satisfying. Perfect for feeding those out of town guests, and using up a bit of your leftovers in an interesting way. Pair this with some potato pancakes (using your leftover mashed potatoes!), and you'll have a hit.

After this Thanksgiving, I used some of my leftover ham to create this Onion and Ham Frittata. Ready to make one yourself? Awesome! You can also use some of your leftover herbs in this, and any odds and ends that didn't get used in your holiday cooking. I had a block of cheese that didn't make it into any recipes, some cream, and an onion as well. Waste not, want not!

Ingredients

To get started, preheat your oven to 400 degrees. In a large bowl whisk together 8 eggs, ½ cup half-n-half, ½ teaspoon salt, and ½ teaspoon pepper. Add in about a tablespoon of any fresh herbs you like, or a teaspoon of dried. I didn't have any fresh herbs left, but I used a bit of this mushroom blend I picked up at Target a while back:



To the egg mixture, stir in 1 cup of white cheddar cheese, or any other cheese of your choice. Always shred cheese fresh, my friends! Those bags of pre-shredded cheese usually contain cornstarch or other additives to prevent the cheese from sticking and to preserve them longer. You'll notice a difference with fresh grated cheese, I promise.

Enough of my soap box. Back to the recipe.

Set aside your egg mixture for now. Warm your 10-inch cast iron skillet over medium heat, and melt 1 tablespoon of butter in the bottom. Add a diced onion to the skillet and cook for 5 minutes, then add 1 ½ cups of leftover ham (diced) and 2 cloves of minced garlic, if you have it on hand. Cook another few minutes, just until the ham is warmed through and the onion begins to brown.

Pour your egg mixture into the skillet, but do not stir. Let this cook over medium heat for 5 minutes, and then put your skillet into the oven for another 10-15 minutes. You want the center of your frittata to just set before removing it. Cool on the counter about 5 minutes before slicing the frittata. Serve with fresh fruit, and perhaps some potato pancakes.



Yum!

Hubs and I love frittata in the morning. You can individually wrap the slices and freeze them as well. To warm them up, cover with a damp paper towel and microwave for a minute or two. Delish!

What do you do with all your holiday leftovers? Comment below, peeps. And until next time, happy cooking!



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The Standard Form:

Onion and Ham Frittata

Ingredients:

1 ½ cups leftover ham, diced
1 yellow onion, diced
8 large eggs
½ cup half-n-half
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon pepper
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon fresh herbs of your choice, or 1 teaspoon dried (suggestions: basil, tarragon, chives, mushroom blend)
1 cup white cheddar cheese, shredded (Or cheese of your choice. Suggestions: pepper jack, Monterey jack, Gouda)
1 tablespoon butter

Directions:

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Whisk together the eggs, half-n-half, salt, pepper, and herbs of your choice. Stir in the cheese and set mixture aside.

In a 10-inch cast iron skillet over medium heat, melt the butter. Add the onions to the skillet and cook for 5 minutes, then add the ham and minced garlic. Continue cooking until the ham is warmed through and the onions begin to brown. Pour the egg mixture over the top of the onions/ham. DO NOT STIR. Continue cooking over medium heat for 5 minutes.

Place the cast iron skillet in the preheated oven. Cook the frittata for 10-15 minutes, or until the c enter is set. Cool 5 minutes before slicing and serving.




November 25, 2014

Quickie Apple Pie

A friend of mine introduced me to a fun blog (The A to B of Cooking) that had the most awesome looking apple pie on it. The recipe was simple, and easy to adjust to your own tastes. So naturally, I did just that...



Mmmmm..... you want one now, don't you? Confession: So do I!

Why do I call this the Quickie Apple Pie? This cooka in the oven anywhere from 30-40 minutes, so you won't have instant results. But, putting it together is a snap, hence the 'quickie' part of this recipe. I personally love apple pie, but I don't like all the effort I have to put into it. This dish solved that problem for me. Plus, you can make one of these at a time or you can make a dozen. That means I won't make a whole pie and then feel obligated to eat it!

Ready to make your own? I thought so.


Ingredients

Let's start this with the most important ingredient, the apples. Not all apples are good for cooking, so choose well. I prefer the Granny Smith variety. They may be tart when raw, but they cook down to yummy, sweet goodness.

Peel and core your apples (two of them), then slice into thin wedges.


Set the apple wedges aside for now. In a small ramekin, combine 2 tablespoons of white sugar with 2 tablespoons of light brown sugar, a dash of cinnamon, and a dash of nutmeg.


Next, prepare your baking sheet. Line it with parchment paper, because you don't want these babies to stick! No one wants to waste all the apple goodness. Divide a sheet of puff pastry into 6 rectangles and lay them on the parchment-lined baking sheet.

It's pretty easy to evenly cut your puff pastry, because of the way it is folded in the box. See:




Simply unfold your sheet of pastry and cut where the natural lines are, then cut each piece in half. Viola!


Now all you have to do is layer your apple slices down the center of each piece, sprinkle with your sugar mixture, and dot with a bit of butter (4 tablespoons). Like so:


Make sure you leave enough gap around your apples so the puff pastry can rise around them. I needed a bit more room on my edges, so don't be like me!

Pop these into a 350 degree oven for about 30 - 40 minutes. Pull them out when the pastry is puffy and a light, golden brown. Drizzle immediately with a bit of homemade caramel, then top with vanilla ice cream and some whipped cream.

Go ahead... sit back, enjoy, and make those yummy noises. You've earned it!


I especially like these on holidays when it's me and the Hubs on our own. Or, you know, on Wednesdays. That's an apple pie kind of day, right?

As always my friends, the standard recipe is below. Until next time, happy cooking!




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The Standard Form:

Quickie Apple Pie

Ingredients:

1 sheet of puff pastry, cut into 6 pieces
2 Granny Smith apples, cored, peeled, and sliced into thin wedges
2 tablespoons white sugar
2 tablespoons light brown sugar
Dash cinnamon
Dash nutmeg
4 tablespoons cold butter, cut into chunks
6 tablespoons caramel sauce, more or less to taste
Ice cream, for serving
Whipped cream, for serving

Directions:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Place the pieces of puff pastry on the parchment-lined baking sheet, about an inch apart. Fan the apple slice in the center of the puff pastry, making sure to leave a border around the edges.

Mix together the sugars, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Sprinkle each ‘pie’ with the sugar mix, then dot evenly with the butter.

Bake 30-40 minutes, or until the edges of the pastry are lightly brown and golden. Remove from oven and immediately drizzle the pies with caramel sauce. Top with vanilla ice cream and whipped cream if desired.


November 24, 2014

Homemade Caramel Sauce

I adore caramel! I like it in sauce, as a chewy candy, as a hard candy... you name it, I love it. Of course, many of the commercial products contain all sorts of chemicals and preservatives that I don't particularly want to eat. So I thought, why not make my own?


I knew the basics, like what was in caramel sauce (mostly sugar and cream), and how to cook it (until boiling and a light amber color). This is a quick process. So one lazy day, I figured I'd take 20 minutes and test it out.

I've made this recipe several times now, and I've learned a few things. No worries, I plan to share all those tips with you. And I plan to continue making this, with some new variations (salted caramel, anyone?), and of course I'll share that when the time comes too!

Ready to try for yourself? Here's what you need to get started:


Ignore that lemon! In my first batch, I tried adding a bit of lemon juice to help prevent crystallization, but I decided it wasn't worth the odd flavor it added to the caramel. In addition to the items above, you need a large stainless steel pot. Mine is 5 liters, a good soup pot size. You'll understand why you need such a large pot soon. 

The first rule of this recipe is to have all your ingredients measured and prepped before you begin. This sauce goes fast, so you need to be ready. Gather together:

1 cup of white granulated sugar
¼ cup of water 
1 cup of heavy cream, warmed on the stove over very low heat 
2 tablespoons of salted butter, cut into pieces
A pinch of salt
Optional: ½ teaspoon of vanilla extract

You also need a wooden spoon, your large cooking pot, a pastry brush, and a small ramekin of extra water.

Let's get busy!

Add your sugar and ¼ cup of water to the pot. Turn your heat to medium/medium-high (I leave my stove around 6 out of 10). As the mixture warms, the sugar will first dissolve into the water and then it will begin to boil. DO NO STIR!! Instead, gently swirl the pan occasionally, and then use your pastry brush (and the extra water) to wet down the sides of the pan where any sugar crystals may gather. Boiling sugar is extremely hot so be careful not to get any fingers in there.

Once the sugar is boiling, the color will slowly begin to change and brown. This is the sugar caramelizing. The darker your color, the more caramel-y and bitter the flavor will become. However, sugar also burns quite easily, so don't let it get too dark! A light to medium amber color is best.

Stages of sugar boiling

Again, NO STIRRING! If "hot" spots develop (an area where the sugar is darker than others), then gently swirl your pot to distribute.

When you've reached the desired color, pull your pot off the heat and stir in your cream. The mixture will bubble fairly violently... this is why you need such a large pot for such a small amount of caramel. See:


I know, that's a terrible picture! But you get the idea.

As soon as you add your cream, start stirring immediately with your wooden spoon. Yay, you can stir now!! Also add in the two tablespoons of butter and the salt (and vanilla, if you like). Keep stirring! The mixture will be thin at first, but it thickens as it cools.



And that's it, seriously. Easy, right?? However...

I've learned from some of my mistakes, and I want to share that with you:

1. Knowing when to pull the sugar from the heat is a bit tricky. The first time I cooked too long, and the second time I cooked too little. On my stove, it takes about 6 minutes from the time the sugar begins to boil to when it is the perfect color. But that could be different for you. This is a quick recipe with basic ingredients, so if you mess up the first time just toss it and start again. You'll figure the timing out, no worries.

2. Make sure you use full fat heavy cream, none of this wimpy half-n-half stuff. The less fat, the less rich. Also, your sauce will be thinner.

3. Make sure your vanilla hasn't gone bad, or your caramel will taste like yucky alcohol (yes, this happened to me). I like the caramel both with and without vanilla, so you don't even need to use it. I'm going to test some real vanilla beans soon, and also a sea salt caramel. I'll let you know how it goes!

4. If your sugar seizes up a bit when you add the cream, don't worry! Just place your pot back over medium heat and keep stirring until it all dissolves again. This also works if your caramel is a bit too thin after adding the cream. Warm it up a little more and it will thicken. Don't forget though... this sauce thickens as it cools, so play around with it a bit first. If your sauce is too thick, you can re-warm the mix with some additional cream to thin it out.

5. Always use a wooden spoon or spatula, no plastic or metal for stirring! I do this because the cooking gods of the internet say that I should. And so far it has worked at preventing the crystallization of my sugar.

6. Cool your caramel at room temperature before covering and placing in your fridge. You don't want any condensation in your caramel. The sauce will keep in your fridge for several weeks. 


I know caramel can be a bit intimidating, but try it just once and you'll be hooked by how easy it really is! And I bet you won't be buying anymore of those chemical-laden sauces from the store anymore either. Not when you can make your own in just a few minutes. And have it taste ten times as good! I've already converted one of my friends, now I'm out to convert the world, mwahahaha.

Stay tuned this week for an awesome, quickie "apple pie" recipe that uses this caramel. It's a great recipe for Thanksgiving, especially if you like simple recipes. You're going to love it! Until then, happy cooking!



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The Standard Form: 

Homemade Caramel Sauce

Ingredients:

1 cup white, granulated sugar
¼ cup water
1 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons salted butter, cut into pieces
Pinch salt
Optional: ½ teaspoon vanilla extract

Other equipment: A wooden spoon, a large stainless steel pot (5 liters), a pastry brush, and a small ramekin of water

Directions:

Have all your ingredients ready before beginning the cooking process. This goes quickly, so you need to be ready.

Add the sugar and ¼ cup of water to your pot. Cook over medium to medium-high heat until the sugar begins to boil. DO NOT STIR! Let the sugar boil and change color. Gently swirl your pan to “stir”, occasionally. One the sugar turns a golden amber color, remove from heat.

Immediately stir in your cream with a wooden spoon. The mixture will bubble violently, so be careful! (This is also why we use a large pot). Stir in the butter, salt, and vanilla next.

The caramel will be a little thin, but thickens upon standing. If the sugar seized at all when the cream is added, you can return the pot to medium heat and continue stirring until all the sugar dissolves. Cool the caramel sauce to room temperature, and then refrigerate up to two weeks.

November 20, 2014

Christmas Traditions: Tree Raising

I know I'm early based on conventional traditions, but when have I ever been conventional??? The holiday spirit hit me quick this year, so yesterday I decided to put up my tree.


My neighbor helps with the tree


If you know me at all, then know this... I am not mechanically inclined. Like, at all. So when my tree came up with missing parts, I wasn't well equipped to handle it. That's why I called in reinforcements.

What was the problem, you wonder? Well, I bought my pre-lit tree used this year from someone moving back to the States. The 220V plug is handy to have. But when I opened the box, I realized there were no directions or diagrams or anything.

I can hear you laughing, you know.

With only 4 parts in total, you would think I could do it without directions. I thought I could. Then, I couldn't figure out which piece was the bottom tier. Then I realized the base was obviously missing a few screws. Then I finally figured out the bottom tier, but it immediately fell over due to the lack of parts.

Help!! Lucky me, my neighbor came over to laugh at me.

I mean, she came over to help me. And she did. But we pretty much redneck-ified my tree (this is an official word now).

Tree base, plus zip ties

We searched my tool box for screws that would fit the tree base. No luck. However, I did have quite a few zip ties! These are like duct tape, they fix all sorts of ills. As you can see from the pic above, I zip-tied the first tier of branches to the base.

Problem solved.

All of this took several hours of thought, a few trips back and forth to my basement and the neighbors house, 1 cup of coffee, 2 bags worth of zip ties, and a lot of laughter. But in the end...


Eureka! Let there be light... which is a whole other story and took another 30 minutes of plugging in, unplugging, and rearranging of cables. Not to mention the time it took to move all my living room furniture and find the perfect spot for my zip-tied Christmas tree.

Needless to say, I didn't get around to actually trimming the tree. That comes this weekend! Wish me luck, fingers crossed that my jerry-rigged stand holds, kay? Until next time, my friends...



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November 16, 2014

Christmas Traditions: Advent Calendars

I'll just put this out there while I can, and get it said... I LOVE CHRISTMAS! I probably inherited this from my mom, who is an absolute Christmas nut. Our home was always decorated to the max. We had several trees (all with different themes), garland everywhere, plus lights, candles, candy dishes, little Christmas villages... and that's just the first floor!

Living in Germany is a Christmas fantasy come true. Not only are the Christmas markets absolutely fantastic, but many of our Christmas traditions originated here. For example, the advent calendar...


My advent calendar (a gift from grandma)

This is such a fun tradition! I mean, who doesn't like getting a surprise everyday for the 24 days before Christmas??

There are so many styles of these calendars. Some are cardboard and contain chocolates or prizes. Some are paper and each window opens to a bible verse. Some are little bags that can be filled with whatever you want. I've even seen people purchase tiny, wrapped chocolate boxes that hang on the tree. Personally, I've always wanted one of the wooden calendars. And this year I got one!

You see, whilst my grandma was visiting I took her to Rothenburg ob der Tauber (I take everyone here, it's a beautiful German town!). In the town center is one of the world-renowned Käthe Wohlfahrt Christmas shops.

Outside Käthe Wohlfahrt

Inside Käthe Wohlfahrt
Inside Käthe Wohlfahrt


During our shopping spree, my Nana managed to buy me the wooden calendar you see above and sneak it home, all without my knowledge. She presented it to me before she left, as a present. Isn't she the sweetest??!! So this year, the Hubs and I are continuing the tradition of Christmas advent calendars in style.

And though I was the one who filled the wooden drawers with sweets, I'm guessing the Hubs will eat most of the prizes... anyone else want to take that bet? I didn't think so. Total sucker bet, ha.

Do you use an advent calendar? What are some of your favorite Christmas traditions? Comment below, peeps! Until next time...


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