Friday, December 14, 2012

Holiday Baking Fun

December 14, 2012

By Sheila

Sheila with her helper Paige

There is something magical about holiday cookies.  I operate under the delusion that those calories don't count so much during the month of December.  A really good homemade cookie is about my favorite sweet treat on the planet, and so an occasional indulgence is probably not so bad.  Here I go rationalizing wayward behavior again.  Want to join me?

Paige and Camryn hard at work
Cookie baking at our house is a family tradition.  For the past few years it has included four generations with the addition of our newest cookie bakers Camryn (three) and Paige (one), two of my three granddaughters. This week my Mom had a conflict, so my daughter and her girls gathered at my house for our annual cookie baking frenzy.  We have scaled it down a little from previous years because we really don't want to eat our weight in fudge during the month of December, nor do we want to have to throw away tired treats in January.  Although we have a few family favorites, we switch it up from year to year, so here is what we made today:

Peanut Butter Cookies (my daughter has her mother-in-law's secret family recipe and they melt in your mouth - thanks Terrie!)
Russian Teacakes  or Mexican Wedding Cakes (as far as I know, these are the same thing, and my kids always called them snowball cookies, cuz that is what they look like)
Celebration Cookies made with cranberries and white chocolate
Sugar Cookies - a favorite must-have
Fudge - we say we make this for my Dad, but he's not the only one who eats it!

You can never have enough sprinkles!

The sugar cookies are the most time-intensive, but also the cookie where a three year-old's artistic talent really gets to shine.  I have some very large gingerbread people and Christmas tree cookie cutters that are a big hit with the little ones.  I have made these for the neighborhood kids to decorate over the years and they loved it.  It seems even the grown up elves have a hard time resisting a good sugar cookie!

My daughter Liz, with some of the day's creations
As they say in the Olympics.... Let the Games Begin!

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Door Envy

by Ann

First impressions are important.  The front door is an important component to the first impression of a home.  We moved into a house in a development that a single woman with teenage children had built, making design choices I would have never considered, including the door.   The original owner had installed an inexpensive black metal security door over the standard-issue wooden door that came with the houses in our neighborhood.  Not only was the metal door unattractive, it also couldn’t shut all the way, so was not serviceable.  When our handyman was asked about taking it down he explained that since it was a security door the entire frame would need to be removed, thus resulting in a larger project than we were up for just to get rid of the outer door.  So, we lived with the entry way that I initially deemed as a high priority project for over ten years because other things (like the emerald green carpeting, cheesy mini blinds, bathroom fixtures, counter tops, lighting, etc...   you get the idea) were higher on our home improvement project list.
See the picture below for our NEW and lovely door!  (I had originally had the "before" pictures posted as the first pics, but have since discovered that whatever the first pic posted is comes up as the header when looking at our blog with a smartphone, and wanted you to see this rather than the funky before pics!)
We were in the middle of this project at this time last year, before Sheila, Heather and I had the “let’s start a blog inspiration,” so the before pictures are a bit rigged up.  Below is our neighbor's entryway to illustrate how the window transom was situated above the door.
Below is a version of the same security door that was on our front door, but this one is on the side of our house going into the garage. 
This is the SIDE of our garage, so not the greatest comparison to our original front door, but the security screen is exactly the same as the one in front.  Not my idea of a good first impression.
Within the last year or so two of my friends had replaced their entryways with absolutely beautiful iron and glass doors, giving me tremendous “door envy,” causing the door to move to a higher place on the priority list.  My husband, Patrick and I went to a home show at the University of Phoenix stadium (where the Phoenix Cardinals play) to seek out companies that make custom doors like I had in mind.  There were two companies that had displays impressive enough to warrant having reps come to our home to do estimates.  Both companies had similar pricing, and great ideas to share, but we had to choose.  It came down to what to do with the small transom window above the door.  One company suggested making the entire doorway taller, including the area where the window had been, making the entryway seem grander.

Since both of the bids came in close, we signed on the dotted line, providing a down payment of half for the fabrication to begin with the smaller company; the one  with bigger ideas for our project.  Each door is custom built, yet buyers don’t have to start from scratch.  We poured through notebooks filled with pictures of previously done projects from which the scroll work and general designs could be duplicated.  Yet there were many more decisions to be made –  choosing the finish, the type of glass, the door handles, and probably many other things that I can’t remember at this point.
We signed the contract at the end of August with the promise that installation would take place prior to Thanksgiving (the holiday that we traditionally host) of last year.  A couple of months later we were given complimentary tickets to yet another home and garden show so we could see our door in progress being shown off.  The company wanted to people to see that a fabulous door could be created for a traditional sized entry way, since the more common type of home with these doors is “grander” than ours.  We visited our door at the show; encouraged that it was almost done, just waiting on the glass.  The glass took longer than predicted, Thanksgiving came and went with no new door, but soon thereafter it was installed.
 See below for how nice it looks now that it is done.

The glass door panel can open.  We chose not to include a screen in order to maintain consistency in the look of the glass and the depth of the panel. 
(We don't have many bugs in Arizona, nor do we open the panel often.)

I am happy to report that I am no longer suffering from door-envy, pleased with the results of this project.  Hmm.... what's the next undertaking?

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Makin' Your List and Checkin' it Twice

December 12, 2012

By Sheila

Okay, I know it's a little late to be starting your list-making for the holidays, but if you are anything like me, you are constantly making and checking your lists.  This time of year list-making is even more critical to saving me time, money and sanity since there are so many more activities to do, events to attend, and groceries, decorations and gifts to buy. I used to be a strictly paper and pencil list-maker (I used to buy a case of spiral notebooks every year during back to school sales), but I have come to rely heavily on my I-pad.  So much so that when it was stolen on a recent trip to San Francisco, I was really anxious to replace it.  By the way, back your I-pad up by plugging it in to your computer regularly, or backing up to the cloud.  I lost some of my info, but not a lot, thank goodness.
I am not one to start my Christmas shopping 6 months early, but I do like to get my lists made well before Thanksgiving.  I list all the people I plan to buy gifts for, add any ideas I have for them, and set a budget for how much I plan to spend.  I start asking my kids for suggestions for their families and making notes of their ideas.  My daughter is an especially thoughtful and creative gift giver, so when I am stumped, I tap her brain.  I do some of my shopping online - especially for those that live far away - because of the ease of shipping, and good pricing.  My kids are always comparison shopping with their smart phones, and I have started doing this too.  Yesterday at Nordstrom my daughter found the exact shoes she wanted for $5 less at Zappos (plus no tax and free shipping) and Nordstrom matched it.  It never hurts to ask. In addition to price,  you can check product availability at various stores, saving more time, gas and personal energy running around. For online shopping she recommends and coupon cabin for promo codes.
In addition, I keep these gift lists, as well as previous years' holiday menus.  I love my I-pad for the ease of this.  I have last years Christmas Eve menu, along with the notes of which recipes we used and any comments regarding what I would change, or the quantity we made.  It makes my planning for this year much easier.  I know there are probably some great apps for this which I have yet to explore.  If you know of some, please send them to me!
On my list for this week; complete my gift shopping and finish baking.  I don't bake nearly as much as I used to, mostly because we don't want to eat all the baked goods, but I do like to have it for guests and gifts.  Okay, and I've been known to eat a cookie for a breakfast appetizer with my coffee in the morning.  Then I will take a cue from Ann and get myself to Jazzercise.  Better add that to the list!
What's on your list?  Do you know of some great apps for smart phones or the I-pad that help stay organized and save time and money?  I'd love to know about them.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Sublime Homemade Caramels

by Ann

Sublime is a somewhat new word to me.  Certainly I had heard the word before, but never thought about it much, because quite honestly, I would not describe much in my life as sublime.  I guess it all comes down to interpretation, so perhaps I’m wrong about that.  According to sublime can refer to anything ranging from impressing the mind with a sense of grandeur to describing something that is supreme or outstanding.
Sheila, Heather, and I have been talking about what is and isn’t sublime lately.  We feel like we need a new tag line under our Friendship, Life, and Style blog title, and went back to some of the original blog name ideas we came up with when we first started this adventure, one of which included the word in question.  We initially decided not to use it because we weren’t certain that enough of what we would be writing about would fit that description but, but the recipe I’m sharing today truly is!  These caramels are SUBLIME!
This recipe is my great aunt’s, so it has been in our family for a long time.  My mom and I have made it a few times, and then several years ago I had a disastrous experience when Sheila, Heather and I had a baking day years ago for which I brought the supplies needed to make caramels, but bought quarts instead of pints of cream by mistake, with disasterous results.  (Really?? I was a home ec teacher!  How many times did we go over measurements and equivalents?)
Fast forward to this month -- the peer pressure was on when one of Heather's blog posts commented on hoping that caramels would be appearing this holiday season.  I enlisted my mom to do the recipe with me, because I was gun-shy to try it again after the last fiasco. 
I didn’t have an electronic copy of the recipe, so retyped it prior to heading off to my mother’s house.  The version of the recipe that I had said that it would take 2 ½ - 3 hours to cook start to finish.  Reality was that the cooking process took over four hours, so it is not something to do when you’re in a hurry! Perplexed by why it took the mixture so long to reach the soft ball stage I asked the STEM specialist (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) in my office if the added cooking time could be related to the “ultra-pasteurization” of today’s cream as opposed to what was available in the past. She agreed that was probably the case, as well as something about the coagulation of the protein in the milk that I didn’t understand.  I just know that they are worth the effort.

Sugar, light corn syrup, and one pint of cream getting ready to start the long process....
After  about an hour and a half of cooking the syrup becomes a beautiful golden brown. Add the second pint of cream and stir to mix.   Constant stirring is not required, so maybe you could be writing your Christmas cards....  watching a movie .......  Just be sure to check in every now and then to see if the temperature is approaching 230 degrees....  (Once it does, add the final pint of cream and small piece of parafin.)
Getting closer -- the syrup is browner and bubblier -- but it's still taking a l-o-n-g time.  Resist temptation!  Do not increase the heat beyond medium low!  Once the soft ball stage is reached, take off the heat and add vanilla and nuts.


Once nuts and vanilla are added, pour into greased pan.  Unlike some candy recipes, there is no frantic rush to get this step accomplished within 30 seconds!
The candy must set in the greased pan for at least overnight before cutting and wrapping.

Pictured here is half of the wrapping battle won -- The container with wrapped pieces is only a portion of what I'd wrapped.  The pottery dishes are what I bought at Sur la Table to fill for small gifts for friends. 
Caution -- The wrapping process takes another 2 + hours to complete!
Ready for gift-giving!  Yum!  (There were several more -- why all the red bowls in a row?!)
Soft Homemade Caramels

4 c sugar
1 16 oz bottle of light Karo syrup
3 pints whipping cream
paraffin wax, ¼ of one layer in a box of 4 (about the size of an egg)
1 Tablespoon vanilla
1 lb. walnuts or pecans (3 cups) chopped
(Note:  the cooking process from beginning to end will take about 4 hours.)
1.       In large kettle, slowly cook sugar, syrup, and 1 pint of cream.  Once the mixture has started to cook, the heat should be on the “medium-low” setting on the stove.  (230° on candy thermometer)  Cook until small amount dropped in iced water forms a soft ball.
2.       Add second pint of cream, stirring with wooden spoon; cook until a slightly harder softball forms. (Do not stir throughout the cooking process – only to incorporate the added cream)
3.       Add the third pint of cream and paraffin wax; cook to soft ball where the ball can be shaped and it holds the shape in iced water. (232° is what the recipe said, but ours never got quite that high, yet the ball kept its shape in the water.)
4.       Remove from stove.  Add vanilla and nuts.
5.       Pour into greased 10 x 15” pan (with sides of at least 1”).
6.       Cool completely, at least overnight in a cool place, but not the refrigerator.
Once cool: (Note:  the wrapping process will take at least an hour to complete.)
1.       Cut many squares of waxed paper or clear wrap about 3 ½ x 3 ½”.
2.       Cut caramels into squares, and wrap each one.
Store in cool place.
Enjoy!  These are amazing treats and make wonderful holiday gifts.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Holiday Sequins and Sparkle

December 10, 2012

by Heather

Tom and I were supposed to be in Las Vegas last weekend partying with my Australian cousins  and Minnesota relatives.  Walking pneumonia kept both of us home however.  Even though we didn't make it this time, Ann, Sheila and I will be in Vegas for the big bloggers' convention in January, and I have just the perfect outfit -- good for the holidays, our next band gig, and the Vegas strip.

Do you remember Liberace?  I feel as if I'm channeling him with this jacket.  I'm never sure about this many sequins (although I do love shiny and sparkly), so I'm pairing the jacket with blue jeans and a basic white tank so it's not too over the top.

The jacket is from Chicos as are the necklace and earrings. The ring is from a wonderful new store I discovered this weekend in north Scottsdale.  My friend, Susan, is showing some of her fabulous hand-knitted scarves at the store, so she snatched me away from my household drudgery and made me go shopping. If you get the chance, stop in at Global Elements.  They have a wonderful eclectic mix of merchandise and the store itself is an architect's dream.

Look!  The tree is up and decorated!!  More on the tree and the rest of the Christmas decorations next Monday -- or maybe sooner if I get my act together and take some photos.  Monday night is book club at my house, so I have some cooking to do before I tackle anything else.

Jeans and sequined shoes are from White House Black Market.

Hoping your holidays are merry!