November 28, 2012

Reusing A Chocolate Advent Calendar - Yes, they can be refilled!

By the time we become adults we sometimes forget how magical some of the smallest parts of Christmas are.  Having children of your own brings back some of the awe and the peacefulness of the Season but even as a Mom of three, I know I have to work hard to get past the hustle and bustle and politically correct arguments surrounding me and just... 'be'.  One of the traditions I started when my children were tiny was to let them open an Advent Calendar. A cardboard rectangle housing 24 little chocolate candies, in which you carefully open one door a day until Christmas.  A fun and easy way for little ones to see how many more days until Christmas and to enjoy the chocolate surprise inside.

We relocated often with my husbands job, and I found these calendars were some times harder to find than other times.  (This was in the world 'before' internet as my little ones were born in the 90's.)  Usually I would start to keep my eyes open for them in grocery stores, but other years I stumbled upon them in dollar stores, or even at the cash register of a department store.  They were not always easy to find, but because of that, I became an expert at saving the  'reusing' the one from the year before.  Even if you purchase a new one, it would do you well to open and remove the plastic mold from it as you can use that mold to make chocolates and candies and little gummy candies without having to purchase expensive candy molds.

Although my 'babies' are all older now, my 16 year old still loves to open the little doors each morning before school and when her brother and sister are home for the holidays, they argue over who's 'turn' it is as if they were still 6 years old.  Yes, a tradition is a tradition for a reason...  all the little pieces of a holiday that come together to make it special and build memories that last a lifetime.

Last year we had just moved to our new city and state when I spied a chocolate advent calendar at Michaels craft store.  I packed the empty package into our Christmas decorations box and last weekend when we put up the tree, I refilled the advent calendar.  It's ready to go on December 1st with my daughters favorite "cookies and cream" candies.

It takes about 10 minutes from start to finish and then about an hour for the candies to set at room temperature (or speed it up to mere minutes in the freezer or refrigerator if you need to).  You can also flavor the chocolates with whatever flavoring extract or oil you wish, or my personal choice - to use sugar free chocolate to make your own sugar free chocolates!  (If you or your children can't have sugar for health reasons you can remove and throw away the chocolate and refill with the sugar free version you can have).

Re-Using Advent Calendars

1 chocolate candy Advent Calendar from a previous year
1 cup chocolate chips or candy disks (sugar free, regular, white chocolate, mint, butterscotch, etc.)
1 t shortening or butter
extract or oils if you wish to flavor (or 1-2 t peanut butter, 1 crushed oreo, etc.)
ziploc baggy

Turn the package over and carefully slice open the top to remove the plastic candy mold from inside. Carefully wash the mold with hot soapy water and let dry completely.  Make sure there are no drops of water inside your molds.   Melt 1 cup of  candy chips of your choice with 1 teaspoon butter or shortening.  I used white chocolate chips and crushed an Oreo fine to make cookies and cream.  Use whatever flavor mixture you wish.  Melt either in a pan over simmering hot water until smooth or microwave.  Do not over cook or your chocolate with seize and harden.  Place in a ziploc baggy, trim one corner to make a small opening and squeeze the melted filling into each little candy crevice.  Pick up the tray and drop it or tap it firmly against the counter top about 5-6 times to settle the melted candy, flatten them evenly and remove air bubbles.  Let set to harden.  Place back in the cardboard package. 

slice open the package
remove the candy mold

wash and dry completely

decide your favorite filling or just use chocolate chips

fill each little mold with melted candy

let harden before replacing in the cardboard package to reuse

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November 27, 2012

Think Outside of the Cup! Spiced Carrots - (Surprise! Made with Pumpkin Pie Torani Syrup)

Incredible carrot side-dish for your next meal
Our family always have about 7 - 8 different flavors of Torani Syrup on hand at any time for use in coffee, cappuccino's, latte's and snow cones as well as flavoring whipped cream, cakes, quick breads and pie fillings.  Through a campaign by and Torani Syrups, I had a chance to be sent 2 bottles (no choice of flavor) of syrups to review.  With over 80 flavors available, I knew I had a good chance of being sent a flavor I had never tried before, and I was right.  I received a bottle of hazelnut (which I have bought before but don't have currently) and a bottle of pumpkin pie syrup flavoring.

Just in time for the holidays, I thought I would share a recipe I whipped up using the new-to-me Pumpkin Pie flavor.  It is so easy a child can make it, but so good, you'll probably get compliments from guests and asked for the recipe.  I love carrots - freshly peeled, sliced and cooked - and love them with the most simple of seasonings; butter, salt and pepper.  However, I found the addition of pumpkin pie syrup gives them that little something special that makes them shine as more than a lowly side dish. 

Spiced Carrots

3 fresh, large carrots
3/4 c pumpkin pie flavored Torani Syrup (I used Sugar Free, you can use either)
1 1/2 c water

Peel the carrots and slice into coins about 1/4" thick.  Place either in a microwavable bowl or in a small saucepan.  Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer on the stove, or cook in your microwave until the carrots are just tender.  Drain quickly and add salt, pepper and a tablespoon or so of butter to your personal tastes.  Serve hot.

I have a few $1 off coupons to share if you have a retail store near you and you would like to purchase a bottle, or you shop online and have it shipped directly to your home!  Use code SHESPEAKS  thru 11/30/12 on the site to order direct or email me to request a coupon and I'd be happy to mail you one.

*As mentioned above, this post was sponsored by SheSpeaks and I was sent two bottles of Torani Syrup to try and review.  All opinions however, are mine.

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November 26, 2012

2 ingredient cupcakes? Yep! Pumpkin and a cake mix!

Pumpkin and a cake mix...  cupcakes!

I admit this post isn't up to typical standards, but it's the Thanksgiving/Black Friday/ Decorate the House for Christmas Weekend!  So...  you get a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants post.    This is a quick photo I snapped when I whipped up cupcakes to use up an open can of pure pumpkin. 

No oil, no eggs, just a can of pumpkin, a dry cake mix and enough water to make it a typical batter consistency.  Since I was using up pure pumpkin puree, I didn't use a whole cake mix.  I used about 1/3 of a dry mix, 1 cup of pumpkin and a little water until it looked like typical cake batter.  I have a mini-cupcake maker so I used that instead of heating up the oven and in mere minutes we had cupcakes!  I can't say they are 'healthy' as they use a store bought cake mix - but they are 'healthier' as they have no fat or oil added, and the addition of pumpkin makes them packed with vitamins and nutrients as well keeps them moist!  So moist, that you will want to eat these within a day or so.  After that they tend to 'deflate' and aren't as puffy and cute.

You might be interested in the cupcake maker I own;

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November 24, 2012

Tiny Little Cookie Cutters to Apply the Finishing Touches to Your Homemade Pies

As American as.... ?   Apple pie!  Or blueberry, rhubarb, pecan, lemon, chocolate, cherry, strawberry, peach, pumpkin...  the list goes on!   Pies are easy and delicious but this morning's post is about tiny little 'extra' you can do to not only make your pies beautiful, but it uses up that small piece of pie crust you may have leftover after rolling your dough. 

Using tiny cookie cutters (I used Autumn leaves above) you can match the shape to the event, holiday, season or celebration and lay them on top of your pie before baking.

   For Christmas, I've used tiny holly leaves with a sprinkle of green tinted sugar, but you could use any shape you wish.   After preparing your pie, cut as many small shapes as you wish and using an egg wash as the 'adhesive', apply them to your pie.  You can sprinkle with white sugar before baking if you wish (you can leave them plain of course too), but if you want to use tinted sugars, I'd suggest applying them after baking as they can get too brown.  Before serving you can simply brush the shape with a tiny bit of water just to dampen it, and apply the sugar to stick.

You might be interested in these small cookie cutters;

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November 21, 2012

Pumpkin Cinnamon Rolls

Ready to go into the oven!

About a month ago I started to crave pumpkin.  However, we didn't have any so my craving just grew in intensity.   Finally, I bought two large 32 oz. (?) cans - the big ones - and I started to put pumpkin in everything.  I started with pumpkin bars of course, but went on to make more pumpkin pasta, pumpkin bread, pumpkin cupcakes.

My latest 'pumpkin' inspired recipe was deciding to add it to my homemade cinnamon rolls.  I made a large double batch so it made two (2) 9X13" pans.  This way I already have Christmas morning breakfast in the freezer and ready to simply take out on Christmas Eve and let them raise in the pan in the refrigerator for a delicious breakfast for our entire family that takes no time whatsoever!

Pumpkin Cinnamon Rolls

1/2 c water
1/2 c milk
1/4 c butter
1/2 c brown sugar
1 t salt
1 t vanilla
1 1/3 c pumpkin puree (not pumpkin pie filling, just pumpkin)
1/2 c warm/barely hot tap water
2 pkg. yeast (or about 4 1/2 teaspoons)
2 eggs
7 c flour
2 t cinnamon
1 3/4 c brown sugar
1 T cinnamon
1 t powdered vanilla (optional if you have it)
1 1/2 sticks butter (about 3/4 c)

In a microwavable bowl, place the water, milk, butter, brown sugar, salt and vanilla.  Microwave for a minute or two until melted.  Add the pumpkin and stir or whisk smooth.  In a mixing bowl pour the warm tap water and add the yeast.  As soon as it's foamy, add the 2 eggs and the pumpkin mixture.  Mix just until blended.

Add about 5-6 cups of the flour and the 2 t cinnamon.  Using your bread dough hook, mixing and kneading.  (I often make my dough in the bread machine as well;  just use your 'dough' setting).  As soon as the flour is incorporated, add the last 1 1/2 cups (or so) until your dough is no longer sticky.  When it is forming a nice ball and isn't sticking, let it machine knead about 4-5 minutes more or take it out and knead it by hand.  Let it rise in the bowl under plastic wrap until doubled in size.  Punch down.  Divide in half.

Mix the last brown sugar, cinnamon, powdered vanilla (if you have it) and butter.  Mix with your fingers (or cut in with two forks) until crumbly.  

Roll out the half dough ball to a large rectangle.  When it's roughly about 12 inches by 16 inches, spread half the topping mixture over it.  Starting with the longer 16 inch side, roll it up and squeeze the end to form a log.  Use a sharp knife or utensil to cut equal slices.  You slice them as thin as 1 inch or as thick as 2-3 inches.  It depends on how thick you like them and how many you need to make!  I like them about 1 1/2" side and get about 12 of them this way.  Place in  a greased baking pan (anything around 9X13" size works fine).  Cover with a piece of plastic wrap and let them double in size.  Bake at 375 (ish) around 20 minutes.  They will be golden brown and bubbling.  Let the rolls cool for at least 7-10 minutes before adding icing if you wish to top them.  Can be served as they are or with an icing recipe or even store bought frosting.

Easy Icing:
Start with 1 to 1 1/2 c powdered sugar. Add 2 T soft butter and about 1 tablespoon heavy cream. Turn on the mixer and mix until completely smooth. If it's too thick add more cream (or milk) but only 1 teaspoon at a time as you don't want to add too much and have 'soup'. Frost the rolls and serve warm.

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November 16, 2012

The Best French Dip Sandwich So Far....

French Dip Sandwich... my teenage daughter's favorite!

My 16 year old daughter loves French Dip Sandwiches.  She used to work at a restaurant, and when she got her dinner break it was fairly likely this would be her choice of meal.  A French Dip is easy to make because you simply place a roast in a slow cooker or Crock pot with a lot of water and spices and about 6-7 hours later you can serve it with very little work on your part.   

There are two basic recipes that most people use for this.  One includes an onion soup mix (the dried kind that comes in an envelope).  That isn't the kind we prefer though.  The kind our family likes starts with a soy sauce base and does not include onions.  (I KNOW!  Can you believe it?  I'm a girl who would eat onions at every meal in one way or another... but this is one recipe that simply doesn't need them).     

French Dip (Sandwiches)

1 T chopped or minced garlic
1 beef bouillon cube
1 T rosemary
3 bay leaves
3/4 c - 1 cup soy sauce  (I use approximately 1 cup, give or take)
about 6 cups water
1 beef roast (chuck is affordable and tastes the best)
provolone cheese

Put all ingredients in a Crock-pot or slow cooker.  The size of your roast can be anything from 3 pounds to about 4 or 5 but 3-4 is best for the amount of juice left for dipping.   Cook on high 6-8 hours until tender and falls apart easily when you pull with a fork.

Remove roast from slow cooker and shred with two forks, pulling all the pieces apart.  Remove the bay leaves from the juices in the slow cooker.   Place the shredded beef back in the crock pot and keep on 'warm' setting until needed.  Open a roll, spoon meat on and cover with a slice of cheese.   Broil in the oven just until the cheese is melted.  Spoon liquid into small cups on the side for dipping.

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November 14, 2012

Basketball Cookies in a Gift Basket for a Special Teacher

This week is teacher appreciation week at one of my daughter's high school.  It is a 'secret Santa' style appreciation where each student in a certain school club secretly treats a teacher with little appreciation gifts.  The teacher my daughter has happens to be a basketball coach as well so it was only fitting to make him some yummy basketball cookies.  A simple sugar cookie cut into rounds with the addition of orange and black icing was all it took for a great and easy cookie.  We continued the basketball theme by purchasing a red wire basket and a stuffed basketball at the Dollar Store.  A very frugal gift, yet was very cute!   (See the gift basket image at the bottom of this post).

If you are making these cookies for fun or for an event that they do not need to be stacked or packaged, I would use your own favorite frosting recipe.  I opted for a sturdy Royal Icing instead only because they were going to be stacked and packed into a gift basket.

 Sugar Cookies

1 1/2 c granulated sugar
1 1/2 c butter, soft
2 eggs
2 tablespoons vanilla extract
4 c flour
1 t baking soda
1 t cream of tartar
1 t salt

Combine  sugar and butter, beat until creamy with your electric mixer.  Add eggs  and vanilla.  Beat well.  Add dry ingredients and mix until blended.   Chill dough until it's easy to work with;  30-60 minutes.

On  lightly floured surface roll the dough to 1/4 inch thickness.  Cut out  cookies.  Bake at 350 until the edges just start to turn golden brown,  about 10 minutes.  Cool on wire racks.  Frost.

 Royal Icing  (Frosting)

4 c confectioners' sugar
3 large egg whites
1/2 t cream of tartar
1/2 t vanilla
1 T water

Beat 4-6 minutes on high.  (Add more or less water depending on stiff it is and how stiff you want it).  Will be very hard when it dries.

I drew some basketball shapes on paper to practice my designs

The final gift basket was a great $2 investment from the Dollar Store

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