Sunday, December 28, 2008

Sweet Surprise- A New Caramel Christmas Cookie

“Do you say: care-a mel or kar-muhl,” asked the grocery store checker as she scanned my package of candy?

“Hmm, I say cara- mel.”

“No, no. It’s car-mel, just two syllables,” said the bagger, a hard-working high school student.

“Well, whatever…Don’t you just love them?” I asked.

“Oh my yes,” gushed the checker. “They are sooo good, but, you know, most people buy caramels at Halloween.”

“Well, I found a new cookie recipe (in Rachael Ray’s magazine) and I’m trying it for Christmas.” So, I went home and baked a batch.

About an hour later I heard from my teen-age daughter, “Mom, why haven’t you made these before? They are the best ever.” And I have to agree. The round white cookies are definitely chewy, yet melt in your mouth with a delicate buttery-nut taste. They remind me of what I call Russian tea cakes, but have a velvety oozing center with a hint of pecan pie.

Every year I try a new recipe or two at the holidays and usually discard them in favor of traditional favorites. But, this new cookie recipe (below) is a keeper.

And here’s a photo of Laura baking her batch of sugar cookies for a cookie exchange party.

Pecan Caramel Surprises
With thanks to Rachael Ray
Rachael Ray Magazine, December 2008-January 2009 issue
With additional hints from Debi

1 cup pecans (3 ½ ounces)
1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1 stick (4 ounces) unsalted butter, sliced
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 cup flour
24 soft caramel candies, unwrapped
¾ cup confectioners’ sugar

1. Using a food processor, finely chop the pecans with 1 tablespoon sugar for 20 seconds or until ground. Transfer to a bowl.

2. In the food processor, pulse the butter, remaining 1/3 cup sugar and the vanilla until combined, scraping the bowl occasionally. Add the flour and pulse again to combine. Stir into the pecan mixture.

“At this point the batter does not really hold together, but don’t worry. You will use your hands to form balls around the caramels.”

3. Position the racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven and preheat to 325 degrees. Line 2 cookie sheets with parchment paper.

4. Roll about 1 tablespoon of dough into a ball. Press a caramel into the center, and then roll to enclose the candy. “Add a little more dough if needed.”

5. Repeat with remaining dough and place balls 2 inches apart of the cookie sheets.

6. Bake until lightly colored, about 13-15 minutes.

7. Let cool about 10 minutes and carefully dredge in the confectioners’ sugar.

8. Dust again with confectioners’ sugar before serving.

Makes: 2 dozen exactly

The cookies keep well at room temperature, covered with plastic wrap.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Teen Holiday Party: How to Have Grinchy Fun

Grinchy Green Deviled Eggs & Seuss Spirals

Done gingerbread houses and Nutcracker teas,

Candy cane reindeer and trim-a-trees.

Gone neighborhood caroling, hosted family gatherings,

Two open house buffets and brunch on New Year’s Day.

Dr. Seuss claims the “who’s” like Christmas a lot,

But this Mom is beginning to think she does NOT.

“Why, for 50 some years I’ve put up with it now.”

I must stop this holiday madness from getting to me… but how?

Last year I faced the ultimate seasonal challenge. My 16-year-old cornered me with the standard, “But Mom…You’re invited to all those Christmas cocktail parties and events for the little kids. There’s nothing for me to do.”

I hesitated a moment and prayed for inspiration. “Homework?” Best not suggest that. “Laura,” I finally said, “I think you’re right.”

Traditional holiday parties often leave teens feeling bored and left out. So, I thought and I thought… and then I got an idea, a truly wonderful awful idea. Why not cater to teen moodiness by granting them a Grinch-themed party?

Like millions of others, I’m fond of the mean one and his dog, Max, who live on Mount Crumpit. No matter how overwhelmed I am by shopping, baking and decorating, I always steal a moment to watch the animated classic- The Grinch. Like Dickens Christmas Carol, the story renews my flagging spirit.

“Laura, invite your friends over and have them dress as “who’s,” I finally said. “They can wear silly stripes and polka-dots.”

“Think scarves and ear-muffs, patterned rain boots, blinky earrings-- the zanier, the more Seussical, the better.”

“Use that old artificial tree and decorate it with pink, purple and orange balls. Make it lopsided and lean the star way off the top, then add multi-colored candy canes. Hang garland and lots of tinsel around the house.”

“Okay, Mom,” she said. I understood; okay meant she truly liked the idea. And it came as no surprise that her girlfriends, did as well. Teenagers adore dressing up and experimenting with make-up and this party allowed them to go overboard.

A trip to the dollar store got us started and held costs to a minimum. We recreated Who-ville’s decorative flair with gaudy swags and tacky wreaths. We strung popcorn and bought felt antlers for our faithful dog, Wrigley.

My husband rented a Grinch costume and appeared at the party to carve the roast beast, which was actually a turkey breast. The girls roared with delight.

To my astonishment, my daughter volunteered to help prepare simple but fun-food. Green eggs and ham were a thought, but Laura doesn’t eat ham; so we served deviled eggs with the yolks tinted Grinch green, colorful veggie dips, appetizer pinwheel spirals, curly pasta salad and candy kiss brownies. The punch (see recipes below) proved so popular that I had to refill the bowl three times.

One of my daughter’s friends, said, “Mrs. Lander, the food was so good that I ate a lot; but it was healthy -- wasn’t it?”

Well, actually, it was, but they didn’t need to know.

Emily, another friend, told me she was impressed with the arrangement of swirling sweets. That, too, was easy- I just placed a red and white striped candy kiss on top of each brownie slice and arranged them on a multi-tiered server.

Activities included watching the animated TV classic, followed by the movie, How the Grinch Stole Christmas. The girls exchanged inexpensive gifts, placed in a sleigh piled high with packages, boxes and bags. Music CD’s, earrings and nail polish were popular. They sat around talking and even singing (but they didn’t do it standing hand-in-hand).

And, well, my heart grew with love and happiness that night; watching this hard to please crowd enjoying themselves – at a basic home-based party. The Grinch saved my Christmas season.

On her way out the door Lyndsey summed it up, “Tonight was great Grinchy fun.”

Laura’s planning to bring back the party next year and I am thrilled. Except this time, I’m going to figure out how to get “you-know-who” to help with the clean-up.

Grinch Party Recipes

Who Welcome Punch - or Blood Orange Punch

32 oz. container 100 Percent Pure Fresh Blood Orange Juice - chilled (We used Noble, which is very concentrated)

64 oz. Sparkling Mineral Water- chilled

12 oz. can Lemon-Lime soda

Fresh Cranberries

Mix all 32 ounces of blood orange juice with double (64 oz.) of sparkling mineral water and one can (12 oz.) of lemon-lime soda.

Sprinkle fresh cranberries on top; they will float in punch bowl.

Add additional ice, if desired.

Optional- For a more festive drink, place one neon “litecube” in clear glass cup or stem. .

Seuss Spirals - or Spinach Pinwheel Tortilla Appetizers

1 8 oz. package low fat cream cheese

¼ cup sun dried tomatoes packed in oil

¼ cup scallion, just the green tops, finely chopped

3-4 large size spinach tortillas

Food coloring (red or yellow)

With an electric mixer, beat one package cream cheese until softened.

Add sun dried tomatoes and minced scallion.

Mix together, adding salt and pepper to taste.

Tint with a few drops of food coloring- we chose red – to make the mixture pink.

Spread the cream-cheese mixture, thinly covering the tortillas shells.

Roll up jelly-roll style.

Wrap in waxed paper and refrigerate – up to 1 week ahead of party.

One hour before serving, remove and slice the rolls into ¼” rounds.

Place on a serving plate that will accent the colors.

Grinchy Green Deviled Eggs

1 Dozen Hard Boiled Eggs cut in half (To save time, buy already boiled and peeled eggs)

¼ - ½ cup Mayonnaise (reduced-fat or regular)

1-2 Tablespoons Sweet Pickle Relish

1 teaspoon (or more) Mustard

Salt, pepper, paprika

Green Food Coloring

Pop out the egg yolks, place in a bowl and mash with a fork. Stir in mayonnaise to desired consistency, pickle relish, mustard salt, and pepper to taste. Some people like a firm consistency, others a softer, gooey filling.

Add a few drops of green food coloring to make vibrant green color.

Stuff the egg whites with filling using a spoon or pastry bag.

Refrigerate until ready to serve.

Before serving, sprinkle lightly with paprika.

Can be made a day or two ahead of time.

For detailed instructions on how to make deviled eggs, see

Tri-Color Curly Pasta Salad

1 16 oz. box Rotini pasta

½ - 1 cup Creamy salad dressing

Finely cut vegetables of your choice – yellow, red and green pepper, olives, carrots, broccoli, zucchini, scallion or onion

Cheese cubes cut from rectangular cheddar cheese blocks (To save time, purchase cheese cut in cubes)

Cook spiral pasta according to directions on the package. Drain and place in a deep bowl. Add cut or sliced vegetables of your choice and mix. Add creamy salad dressing and mix lightly. Finally add cheese cubes, stir and chill in refrigerator until ready to serve.

Cindy Lou’s Dippety Do

Fresh vegetables cut up to bite-size pieces.

Tint your favorite dip with food coloring (We made ours orange.)

Serve in a hollowed out green, red or yellow pepper.

Teen girls are always counting calories, so a vegetable tray is a must for any party.

Roast Beast

Roast a turkey breast and slice thinly or use a spiral sliced ham. Provide an assortment of small sized rolls and deli-breads such as rye, whole wheat, pumpernickel, multi-grain and white. Serve with a variety of condiments, including mustard, cranberry relish, mayonnaise or chutney.

Heartfelt Desserts

Bake an array of colorful Christmas cookies, some in heart shapes- as the Grinch’s heart grows in the story. You can also try brownies with mint frosting drizzled with melted chocolate or spiral candy kisses. We also placed dishes of fun-shaped candies such marzipan, multi-color candy canes, gum drops and M & M’s around the table.