Thursday, December 22, 2011

The holiday season (and some holiday D.I.Y projects)

Twas a few days before Christmas and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse (errr cat...)


The cookies were decorated with the utmost of care...


In the hopes that three dozen more in a cookie exchange would soon be there.


The pies were crafted and snug in their bed (i.e oven)...


While visions of stand mixers danced in my head...


Me in my snuggie and Mike in his sweater....

Had just had a nap after a holiday party dinner.

When out of the living room there came a racket so big...


Why it's only Scottish Santa playing a little bagpipe jig!

Away to the mall I flew like a flash...

Tore open my wallet and threw up some cash.

For the presents were bought and wrapped under the tree...


Something for everyone on my list, including me :)

Now that I've got that cheese out of the way, I thought I would share some neat Holiday D.I.Y projects. This one isn't food related, but it's a quick and cheap way to decorate your home for the holiday season, so you can get back to more important things, like food. Did someone say melted brie wheel?


If you're a fan of real Christmas trees like I am, then you'll know the trials and tribulations of vacuuming constantly and watering the stand three times a day. But there's nothing like having a real tree in your house. Sure, it confuses the hell out of household pets, but the smell of fresh pine and the lights twinkling on its branches are worth the hassle.

Making your own Christmas wreath is a great way to use up the trimmings from the tree. For less than $10, I made my own wreath and have the equipment to make one every year now.

All you need is a wire wreath frame or a metal coat hanger. The wire frame was $3.50 at Michaels Craft Store. A coat hanger might be more finicky to make the wreath perfectly straight, but it is free. You'll also need floral wire which can also be purchased at a craft store and any embellishments, such as bows or pinecones.


Start by trimming the branches into smaller pieces. Grab a handful of pieces and place it on the wire then wrap tightly with the floral wire. (Watch this video for step-by-step instruction).

Grab another handful and overlap it with the first bunch to hide the wire. Continue until you have covered the whole wire frame.


And you have your very own Christmas wreath for a fraction of the cost of a store bought one. Add embellishments using a hot glue gun or by tying it with the floral wire.

Hot chocolate is usually a warm comfort on those cold winter nights, but I've never thought about making my own mix until this year. I have a recent obsession with food in jars, so I've been browsing many neat recipes for jar gifts, including cookie mix and hot cocoa mix. All you do is add ingredients to a jar, print out a recipe card, tie on some ribbon and you have a neat homemade gift.


I printed the recipe labels and used the recipe from The Yummy Life.

Add 1 cup of unsweetened cocoa powder, 2 cups icing sugar, 3 cups skim milk powder, 2 tsp cornstarch, 1 tsp salt to a mixing bowl or food processor.



Pulse in the food processor or mix until combined. Add the chocolate chips and any additional flavourings or toppings (like marshmallows, instant coffee/espresso or cinnamon). A Christmas candy bag also works well for packaging the mix.

I will definitely be adding this to some gift baskets this year along with some homemade chutney and canned bruschetta mix. Hope everyone has a Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Great Food Blogger Cookie Swap: Sugar Spiral Cookies

I have never participated in a cookie exchange before, but this year I have somehow convinced myself to join two (possibly three) holiday exchanges. The idea of most cookie exchanges is to bake a dozen or more cookies depending on the number of participants and exchange for the amount of cookies you baked, i.e, you bake some cookies, then get a bunch of cookies in return.

The idea of the Great Food Blogger Cookie Swap was the same, but the twist was to send one dozen cookies to three random bloggers and receive three packages from bloggers in return. Oh, modern technology. Now enthusiastic foodies like myself can not only bake for friends and family, but for other food bloggers all over North America! More than 600 bloggers from Canada and the United States participated in the swap and more than 22, 000 cookies were shipped. How cool is that?


I loved sending a holiday treat in the mail and being a part of something really neat for the food blogging community. All I seem to get in the mail usually is bills and ads, so for the last week or so I have loved checking my mailbox for cookie packages. The cookie swap was organized by Julie of The Little Kitchen and Lindsay of Love and Olive Oil.  They sent out our three matches and it was up to us to mail cookies by December 5 and post our recipe by December 12 (complete rules here).


The other challenging part was deciding what kind of cookie to make. The rules stated we had to make one kind of cookie, it had to be homemade and couldn't be something we've blogged about before. I scoured many cookie recipes for inspiration, as I wanted my cookie to be neat and memorable (if I was going to pay to ship them somewhere and foodies can have quite high standards you know...). I found the recipe for these sugar spiral cookies originally on Pinterest and thought they incorporated holiday colours well, plus you really can't go wrong with a good old sugar cookie.


Spiral Sugar Cookies (adapted from this and this recipe)

Ingredients:
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
2/3 cup icing sugar
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 1/4 cup butter (room temperature)
1 tsp vanilla
Food colouring (about a tsp, but depends on the colouring you want to achieve)
1 cup sprinkles

Directions:
1. Combine flour, baking powder, salt and sugars and mix together. Add in butter and continue mixing. Add in vanilla extract.
2. Divide the dough into two equal parts and place in two separate bowls.


3. Mix red or green food colouring into one of the bowls.
4. Roll out both balls of dough about 1/4 inch thick onto parchment paper. Refrigerate for about an hour.


5. Brush white dough lightly with water using a pastry brush.
6. Place the coloured dough on top of the white dough and trim the edges.


7. Lightly roll the dough and pinch the edges together.


8. Pour sprinkles onto a plate and roll the rolled dough in the sprinkles until covered. Wrap the dough tightly in plastic wrap. Refrigerate for a few hours or overnight.


9. Slice the dough and place the cookies on a lined cookie sheet.



10. Bake for 15 minutes at 325 F.


11. Ship your cookies off to three wonderful food bloggers.


I would like to thank Eri from It all tastes Greek to me (Toronto, Ontario) for her Santorini-inspired spice cookies:


And Sarah from West Wellington Veggie (Ottawa, Ontario) for her Oatmeal Chocolate Cookies:


These cinnamon stars from Heather of New House, New Home, New Life (Tillsonburg, Ontario) were beautifully wrapped and tasted amazing as well: 


I will definitely be participating in the Great Food Blogger Cookie Swap next year. If there was a downside, I would have to say it is having so many delicious cookies lying around the house. I'm one of those people who enjoys giving rather than receiving. I loved making my cookies, but the hardest part is trying to pace myself in eating the three dozen cookies I received. (Sign up for notifications of next year's swap here).


Monday, December 5, 2011

Holiday Chocolate Bark three ways

Every December I usually go overboard at Bulk Barn stocking up on holiday baking ingredients. Keeping cookie exchanges, edible gifts, parties and family gatherings in mind, it's usually the one time of year I can stock up on mass supplies of chocolate, dried fruits, nuts and candy without feeling guilty.


One of those edible gifts on my baking list is usually chocolate bark. It's incredibly easy to put together and makes a great host gift or party treat bag. All you do is melt chocolate, add your desired flavours or topping, and you have a tasty holiday treat in less than 10 minutes. You can also play around with flavour combinations and add different dried fruits and nuts, as well as extracts.


The first two types of bark were adapted from The Happy Baker cookbook. This is one of my go-to dessert cookbooks and has all kinds of easy and delicious recipes, as well as funny dating anecdotes from the author.

Candy Cake Bark (from the Happy Baker cookbook)

Ingredients:
1 1/2 cups melting chocolate or 1 300 g bar of 50-70 per cent chocolate
1 tsp peppermint extract
12 candy canes (can be mini or regular sized, about 20 mini)
1/3 cup white chocolate
1 tsp canola oil


Place the candy canes in a ziploc bag and crush with a rolling pin or baking hammer. This is a great way to release that pre-holiday stress.


Melt the milk chocolate over low heat. Melting chocolate can be tricky, but I try and remove it from the heat just before it's all completely melted. Also, I try to keep it at a really low heat (like 2 or 3 on the stovetop) and constantly stir it as it melts. It's up to you which kind of chocolate to use, but I like the chocolate wafers rather than chips for melting.


Stir in half of the crushed candy canes and peppermint extract. Spread the chocolate onto a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. Sprinkle with the remaining candy canes.


Melt the white chocolate and add the oil. Drizzle the white chocolate over the bark. Set in the freezer for about 20 minutes then break into pieces.


White Chocolate and Cranberry Bark (from the Happy Baker cookbook)

Ingredients:
1 1/4 cups white chocolate
1/2 cup dried cranberries
1/2 cup sliced almonds (or shelled pistachios)


Melt chocolate over low heat. White chocolate is a little more finicky than milk chocolate, so stir often and make sure it doesn't harden.


Remove from heat and stir in the cranberries and almonds. Spread over a lined cookie sheet and let set in the freezer.


Chocolate almond Bark (my own recipe)

Ingredients:
1 1/2 cups chocolate
1/2 cup whole almonds (you can chop them or leave them whole)
1 tsp almond extract

Melt chocolate then remove from heat and stir in almond extract and almonds. Spread onto a cookie sheet and let set in the freezer.


There are endless possibilities when it comes to making different types of bark. The Happy Baker also recommends a dried blueberry and hazelnut combination, which sounds amazing. Bulk and baking stores also carry chocolate wafers in many different colours and flavours. Just resist the urge to open the freezer every five minutes to break off a piece of bark for yourself (never done that...)




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