Sunday, December 27, 2009

I Had A Dream

They say your first memories - the ones you will remember all your life - are of events that occur when you are two or three years old.

I think for me, that was just about right - my very, very first memory is of being carried through the kitchen in our old house in Pepperell, a small town on the Massachusetts/New Hampshire border, where my father's family had lived for generations. Any time anyone mentioned "Pepperell", a vision of being carried through the kitchen by my mother, apparently on my way upstairs for a nap, entered my head. I remember her Revereware tea kettle steaming, as the coil on our electric range slowly began to fade from red to black again, then the memory ends. There was no drama, no burns from the stove or steaming kettle to cement that memory into my consciousness. In fact, that little snippet of memory was always comforting to me for some reason - a cold winter's day, my mother making her ubiquitous cup of tea, and me headed to my warm and cozy bed. Just a random vision that to this day I can see as clearly as if it happened yesterday.

If I think really hard, I can recall a few other visions from my life in Pepperell - a burning barn that we drove by on our way to Nashua for a shopping excursion - I was so worried about the horses, but my Mom assured me that they all got out safely. The brook in our back yard, or the picnic area where we would meet my Dad for lunch on those days when his truck route brought him to the outskirts of town. I even remember the big white horse that calmly grazed in the field next to the picnic area. And walking with my sister and her friends to the center of town, where the water from the river gushed past the old paper mill and under the bridge we stood on.

Funny how in later years, memories seemed to grow fuzzy, almost dreamlike, to the point where I seemed to remember the dreams I had more vividly than real events. I can't remember what I got for Christmas in 1972, but I do remember that vivid dream I had around that time about driving up to Uncle Paul's house in our old blue station wagon, and seeing a giant white dinosaur made of snow, in his driveway, my cousins, Paul, David, Donna, Peter, Michael, Bobby and Christopher all gathered around him as if he was a new pet they had gotten for Christmas.

So yesterday, when we awoke to a dusting of snow on the few inches we got last week, and a bit of fog in the air, that memory came back. It warms my heart to think of that vision I never let go of for some reason. My daughter an I were outside, waiting for my husband to come out so we could go get the newspapers and grab a coffee, when I realized this snow was perfectly sticky....

She threw a few snowballs then I suggested we build a snowman!

"Like Frosty???"

And that's what we kind of did....three balls of snow, a couple twigs from our cherry tree for arms, and as I headed into the house for a carrot and some rocks (from said daughter's *ahem* collection), Steve was on his way out the door.

Now I may have mentioned, my husband attended Massachusetts College of Art, and aside from designing buildings and 3-D models of spacecraft, is a very talented doodler and sketcher, and even a sculptor of sorts. No twig-armed, lumpy snowman was going to plop itself in our front yard! So he set about putting some finishing touches on our new friend...

Such as real arms.
Grace helped a bit, too!
Finally, we placed the carrot and rocks on his head, adorned him with a spare cap...

And voila'!

I must admit, he came out pretty good!

But ... just like the real Frosty, a night of warmer temperatures and some rain can take it's toll. This is what we woke up to this morning....

Oh well, like the song says, he'll be back again some day!

And hopefully some day that white dinosaur will make another appearance. You see, years later I was at a family reunion, and my Aunt Theresa and I were reminiscing about all those Sunday's at her house, when she said something that shocked me. In the midst of telling tales of our snow forts, and the skating rink in the back yard and snowmobile rides in the field next to their house, Aunt Theresa said:

"Oh, and the time those boys built a dinosaur made of snow! They had to stand on the van to build his head!"

How I wish I had a photograph of that beast! For years I had thought I dreamt him up, but in fact he was real! And with every snowfall that results in wet, sticky snow, I remember him again as if he was here just yesterday. Maybe some day he'll make an appearance in our yard...

Hope you all had a Merry Christmas, with wonderful memories to hold on to for years to come!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Holiday Magic Bars

Magic Bars, Seven-Layer Bars, Hello Dolly Bars....

This cookie/candy hybrid has been a favorite of mine for many years. A graham cracker crust topped with any combination of semi-sweet, milk chocolate, butterscotch, peanut butter or white chocolate morsels, nuts, and coconut, drizzled with sweetened condensed milk and baked into ooey, gooey perfection.

I was browsing through my kitchen cupboard, wondering what version I would make this year, when inspiration struck. How about a holiday version, with some cranberries and a little spice? And here's what I came up with.....

I thought about starting with a ginger cookie crumb base, but opted to go half ginger thins and half graham cracker, as the ginger thins I had were pretty spicy. Not that that's a bad thing - using just the cookies would have worked out fine, too. In fact, next time I think I'll do just that!

I started out with about a sleeve of graham crackers and a package of Anna's Ginger Thins, and tossed them into the food processor.

Process until you have fine crumbs and add about 3 tbsp melted butter.
Traditionally, I add a little sugar, but the cookies were sweet enough so I skipped it this time.

(Note: The meager amount of calories saved by omitting the sugar is, shall we say, negligible. Well, you'll see what I mean....)

Press into a buttered baking dish - my 9" x 9" was in use, so I used a 7" x 11".
Here's the fun part - you get to pick what you want to add to your bars. I used 60% Cacao Bittersweet Chocolate Chips, White Chocolate Chips (you'll want about 2 1/2 cups total, whatever combination you decide on), about 3/4 cup dried cranberries, about 2 tsp. minced candied ginger, 3/4 cup coarsely chopped pecans and about 1/2 cup shredded coconut. I should have tossed in some dried apricots, but I forgot!

Drizzle all THAT with a 14-oz. can of sweetened condensed milk.
Bake at 350 degrees F for about 30 minutes or until golden brown.
Here's the tricky part.

Let cool completely.

Seriously, you'll have an ooey-gooey mess if you try to cut these before they're set. But when they are cool to the touch, you can go ahead and cut with a sharp knife, loosening up the sides first.

Very sweet, but a nice candy-like addition to my cookie platters! Hope my friends and family enjoy them - I think they will!

As for me? I'm craving a nice green salad with a light vinaigrette for some strange reason! ;)

Holiday Magic Bars

(Feel free to play around with measurements - this is a great "clean out the pantry" recipe)

2 cups graham cracker/ginger cookie crumbs
3 tbsp. butter, melted
2 1/2 cups chocolate and white chocolate chips
3/4 cup dried cranberries
2 tsp. minced candied ginger
3/4 cup chopped pecans
1/2 cup shredded coconut
1 14-oz. can sweetened condensed milk

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Butter a 9" x 9" inch baking dish.
Combine crumbs and butter, and press into bottom of baking dish.
Sprinkle with chocolate/white chocolate morsels, cranberries, ginger, nuts and coconut.
Drizzle with sweetened condensed milk
Bake for 30 minutes or until golden brown.
Let cool completely and cut into squares with a sharp knife.

Friday, December 18, 2009

There's No Swearing At Christmas....

Oh, really?

Let's just hope Santa was snoozing yesterday when the inevitable baking tragedies happened. Otherwise my chances of receiving that Le Crueset tea kettle and that life-sized Benicio Del Toro oil painting on black velvet are pretty slim.

Well, the Benicio thing ain't happening ANYWAY...but I still think it would look great over the fireplace.

Well, I suppose "tragedies" is a strong word....let's call them glitches! And when your goal is to pump out 20 different kinds of cookies in 4 days (yes, I know I said 15 yesterday, but those recipes keep haunting me!) glitches are bound to happen.

My first one was a big big, that I couldn't bear to photograph it. The toughest part was trying NOT TO SWEAR as I tried desperately to save the $#@%#&@ing dough from my first batch of pinwheel cookies. Don't get me wrong, this was 100% operator error here, because as I found out later the dough is actually quite easy to work with. But my assistant was on a bit of a sugar high and I was distracted by a number of things so I guess I tried to "wing it"...something I don't recommend as far as baking is concerned!

My first mistake - not chilling the dough before rolling it out. It actually held up pretty well, but trying to flip one sheet onto the other, then scraping it up off of the counter to roll into a log...yeah, that just didn't work. The result? A big glob of red and white dough, destined for the trash can. Had I taken a moment to think, I would have saved it because I actually could have used it...BUT, sometimes throwing away a botched recipe is like throwing away the urge to swear, so that's what I did.

Just in case Santa was listening....

Later, after regaining my composure, I realized I might have had better luck chilling the separate doughs before trying to assemble with the green batch, that's what I did. And it worked! I also rolled each color out on waxed paper, nicely floured, then flipped the green over onto the white, rolled it up and chilled that for a few hours. When it came time to bake, it was as easy as slicing, plopping a cinnamon candy in the center and baking. And they came out like this...

Beautiful! And pretty darn tasty, too.
I found myself with a few scraps of dough, so I rolled them into little balls, rolled in sugar and baked and got these....

Then I realized I could have had a whole bunch of red and white ones...DOH!

Oh well, Gitano's Christmas Pinwheel Cookies are over on AR - they make a very pretty addition to your holiday treats, and I'm sure you'll find them quite easy to make!

Later, I made a Coconut Ricotta Cookie from a fellow Allrecipes cook....ricotta cookies, dipped in an almond glaze then coconut....except I added the two cups of coconut to the batter as I yelled, "Gracie! Don't do that!" Oops. They still came out great, though, and instead of more coconut I just used Christmas sprinkles. I just wish on my inaugural attempt at this recipe I could have actually FOLLOWED THE INSTRUCTIONS! Arghhh!

Santa! Look over there....

Later, I decided to catch up on my blogging buddies, and found a recipe for Easy Homemade Fudge...perfect! Maybe instead of fighting with all these cookies, I'll just whip up a batch of homemade fudge. This one sounded sooo good, too! Semi-sweet and butterscotch (which I had a bag of and no plans for yet!) morsels, melted with sweetened condensed milk. I know for a fact I must own 13 cans of sweetened condensed you think I could find just one? Nope.

Block your ears, Santa!

There it was, 10:30 at night and because I had fudge on the brain I just wasn't happy with the piles of cookies accumulating in every corner of my kitchen. So I fell back on an old faithful recipe that I originally saw in the Boston Globe cookbook.

Cocoa-Oatmeal No Bake Cookies

Fudge...with oatmeal in it. I figure nutritionally, they kind of cancel each other out!

This was the first time I used a melon-baller to shape them, and I kind of like the rounder shape. Quick and easy, these make a nice addition to any cookie collection, and what's even better is you can whip these up on the stove while something else is in the oven. How I love to multi-task! Here's my version of the recipe that I've used for about ten years now.

Cocoa Oatmeal No Bake Cookie recipe:

2 cups sugar
5 tbsp. cocoa
1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup milk
1 tsp. vanilla
3 cups quick oats
Few drops of hot water, if needed

In a heavy saucepan, mix together sugar and cocoa; add milk and butter and cook over medium heat, stiring very frequently, until boiling. Boil for six minutes, then remove from heat and stir in oats and vanilla. Drop by heaping teaspoonfuls onto waxed paper and let cool. If mixture becomes dry and crumbly, a few drops of hot water stirred in will help reconstitute.

Believe it or not, I'm only about halfway there! I haven't made my Italian Spice cookies, my cut-outs (with a very special cookie cutter I got in Cleveland!!) and none of my breads. But I made enough to put together these tins for my daughter's teachers today:

The best part about baking all this stuff is the giving away of it all! :) That's what makes Christmas baking so enjoyable for me!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Christmas Cookies

Someone over on the AR Recipe Exchange posed a question to us the other day concerning getting ready for the holidays...

What holiday-related one task or chore do you enjoy doing?

You know me - I can never pick just one thing! And you know one is baking, of course.

I think I started my holiday baking marathons when I was about twenty. My niece was born, so that meant getting together with an extended family on holidays and birthdays, which meant more of "what can I bring?". People who could never figure out what to get me started getting me kitchen gadgets and tools. Over the next few years I started bringing in platters of baked goods for Christmas gifts for my co-workers, neighbors and friends. I felt like I was ripping them off, because, really, I baked because I liked it. With maybe one or two exceptions, I didn't have a particular person in mind when I baked a certain cookie. But we won't tell them that! ;)

I've always enjoyed baking throughout the year, but Christmas baking is special. I remember taking a week off from work, filling a shopping cart with one or two of everything from the baking aisle and taking over the family kitchen (and dining room, for cooling and storage!) right up until just before Christmas. And any time I needed to put together a platter for a gift or a party, I'd lay those bins and tins and bags of goodies on the dining room table, and work my way around as if I was at a cookie buffet.

Baking for me is one of those tasks that is fun, from filling up that shopping cart to putting together those packages. Although, as my personality dictates, I actually prefer to "hit and run" when it comes time to deliver them - at work, I'd sneak my tray into the factory breakroom when nobody was looking, or leave tins on people's desks - kinda like a cookie Santa! Not that they didn't know who it was from, but like I said, I do it for the love of doing it, not for a pat on the back or the big, wet, powdered sugar-laced kiss on the cheek.

Wrapping presents is another thing I love doing, and it's one of the first things I realized my husband and I had in common, way back when we first met. I think at that time I was just about to cross over to the dark side, like my Mom, and just throw everything into gift bags. Then I met Steve, and we had our first Christmas together and did a lot of shopping that year, as we had several young nieces and nephews to buy for. The first gift he wrapped...took 45 minutes. I kid you not! First, he had to pick the perfect paper, and not so much a coordinating bow as a contrasting one - Hey, the man was attending art school at the time. This brought wrapping presents to a whole new level of artistic expression. He even made his own bows, because the storebought ones weren't the perfect color or just weren't good enough. His motto was, and still is today (although we've sort of mellowed out on the wrapping protocol these days), "It's all in the packaging". And that's true! It's all part of the sparkle of the season.

So, back to baking....I've been doing a bit of that lately! I set up a recipe box on Allrecipes for "Christmas Cookies" - meant to hold the recipe that I absolutely, positively MUST MAKE this year. No maybe's. The biggest variety I ever made in one Christmas season was 23 different cookies, so I was aiming for a more practical, doable 15. I have 43 saved.

Yeah. Even I don't like baking THAT much!

Here's what I got so far....

These little cuties have been in my recipe box for a long time. Fudge Puddles - peanut butter cookie cups filled with a fudgy filling. Sounds good, huh? They taste even better!

They intimidated be for a while - I don't know why, they just looked like a lot of work, but trust me, they were so easy! Just roll the dough into 1" balls (yes, they'll look tiny in those mini-muffin tins, but they expand to just the right size while baking - any bigger and they'll overflow). Right out of the oven (which I adjusted to baking at 350 degrees for 12 minutes), press down the tops with a melon baller to better form the well for the filling. I used the teaspoon of my stainless steel measuring spoons, as it was the perfect shape and size. The filling - chocolate chips and sweetened condensed milk - will stay plyable if you leave it in the double boiler - just turn the heat off. I spooned some into a Ziploc bag, snipped a corner and piped it out. Easy as pie!

Then there's these cookies, Santa's Chocolate Thumbprint Cookies.
Another recipe that has haunted my recipe box for a few years now. It's a chocolate crackle-type cookie, rolled in cinnamon-sugar before baking (gotta love cinnamon and chocolate together!), baked, and when still hot you make an indentation and pop in a few chocolate chips - I used a combination of white chocolate and semi-sweet. Let them melt, swirl with a toothpick and top with crush toffee bits. The recipe calls for marachino cherries, but I skipped those. Only problem I ran into was the white chocolate - my store brand ones weren't melting nicely so I had to crack open the Ghirardelli. They melt like a dream!

My next recipe I saw in a Fine Cooking Publication last year, Dark Chocolate Crackle Cookies.

My dad is going to LOVE these! He and I are big time dark chocolate fanatics - I think we're just about a step away from being able to eat and enjoy unsweetened baking chocolate. And these are the most chocolatiest cookies I have ever tasted. The dough is flavored with cocoa and melted bittersweet chocolate, and if that's not enough, more chopped chocolate is added. I taste all my batters and cookie doughs, and let me tell you, I could not bear to add chopped bittersweet chocolate chunks to this - it would have sent me over the edge! I added semi-sweet chips, and they worked fine. They taste like....midnight. Chocolate midnight.

Dark Chocolate Crackle Cookies


  • 2 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 1 cup unsalted butter, room temp
  • 2 cups firmly packed light brown sugar
  • 2/3 cup unsweetened cocoa, sifted if lumpy
  • 2 tsp. finely grated orange zest or 1/4 tsp orange extract
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 3 eggs
  • 8 oz. bittersweet chocolate, melted and cooled to barely warm
  • 3/4 cup (4 oz) chopped white, bittersweet or semi-sweet chocolate
  • About 1/3 cup granulated sugar (for rolling)


  1. Preheat oven to 350 - line baking sheets with parchment paper.
  2. Whisk flour, baking soda and salt together.
  3. In a separate bowl or stand mixer beat butter, brown sugar, cocoa, orange zest and vanilla on medium speed until well-blended (about 4 min). Add eggs, one at a time, beating briefly after each addition. Blend in melted chocolate, then blend in flour on low speed until just barely blended. Add chopped chocolate and blend 15 seconds.
  4. Shape dough into 1 1/4" balls*. Dip tops in sugar and place sugar-side up on baking sheets about 1 1/2" apart.
  5. Bake until cookies are puffed and cracked. Cool on sheets 5 minutes before transferring to cooling racks to cool completely.

Quick! Hand my something NON-CHOCOLATE!

This is a horrid picture, it just doesn't capture the snowy white of these Swedish Tea Cakes...
When I was 14, we moved into a duplex in the same neighborhood I grew up in. Hilda owned the house and live on one side, rented out the other. And because she lived alone, until I actually met her, us kids all thought she was a witch. Come on, old and living in a huge house? Gotta be. But no, as I soon discovered, she was a kind, loving, interesting woman, who was widowed at a relatively young age, worked until the age of 70, never had children of her own and had a lot of love to give. Although she spent her early years in a seaside village called Pigeon Cove, she graduated high school in my hometown, worked in the factory that pretty much built the town (literally. The neighborhood of duplexes we lived in were built to house factory workers) and knew EVERYONE in town. Even into her 90's, she still attended the high school reunions, although the number of people seated at the 1920's table dwindled over the years. She became a close friend to my mom and dad, and a surrogate grandmother to me and my sister (and ever other kid in town!) And boy, did she love to bake. Not just at Christmas, but year round. She'd make twelve different types of cookies or candy because it was a rainy April day, then strap on her plastic rain cap, don her raincoat, galloshes and gloves, and make her deliveries.

I had moved out of that house by the time she passed away at the age of 94 back in 1999. That previous Christmas, she was still baking (although, had surrendered her driver's license, thankfully, after taking out a few mailboxes). That would be the last time I tasted one of those "white powdery things" from Hilda's kitchen. We thought the recipe was lost when lo and
behold, I found a tattered, stained piece of paper with Hilda's handwriting on it - a recipe called Swedish Tea Cakes. By then I had determined that they were some variation of Russian Tea Cakes, Mexican Wedding Cakes, Butterballs, Snowballs.... But, Hilda was Swedish, made lots of Swedish pastry, and none of the recipes I had found on my own were the same as hers. I know now that the difference is in the nuts....while here recipe states that ground almonds can be used, I know she always used pecans. Her brother Walter would ship a big bag up to her from South Carolina every year. I think of her every time I make these cookies.

The thing I think about is rather sad - that Hilda never was able to share her traditions with a child of her own. But even though I love my parents, I have a special place in my heart for Hilda, and I will never forget her kindness, her voice, her laughter..or her cookies. Better yet, my daughter, born 6 years after her passing, actually knows who Hilda is. She knows when we drive by "Hilda's side of the house" when we visit the old hometown. And she knows Mommy is making Hilda's cookies when she sees the powdered sugar and chopped pecans come out!

I think that makes Hilda, wherever she is, very happy.

Hilda's Swedish Tea Cakes

1/2 cup powdered sugar
1 cup butter, softened
2 tsp. vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup finely chopped pecans (or almonds)
1/4 tsp. salt
Powdered sugar for rolling (about 1 1/2 cups)

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F.
In a large bowl, beat 1/2 cup powdered sugar and butter until light and fluffy; beat in vanilla.
Stir in flour, nuts and salt, and mix until dough forms. (Chill dough, if desired)
Shape into 1" balls and place 1" apart on ungreased cookie sheets.
Bake 15 to 20 minutes or until set, but not brown.
Immediately remove from cookie sheets - cool just slightly, so you can handle with your fingers. Roll in powdered sugar and place on wire racks to cool completely.
When cookies are completely cooled, roll once again in powdered sugar.
Store in an airtight container.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Let There Be (Christmas) Lights!

Yawn.....Do I smell cookies?! Well, hello there! (as she emerges from her pumpkin-induced coma).

Wow! It's been a while, hasn't it? I am so sorry I sort of dropped off the radar for a while. You all know how it is. Life gets busy, time flies by, husband hogs the computer, work was crappy but now it's better... ;)

Anyway, I hope everyone is doing well! I have popped in here and there, lurking around, keeping an eye on you all! We are all fine and dandy - Punkin is very excited for Christmas, but the cool thing is that it's not just the presents and candy and material things...the thing she's most excited about is seeing relatives - Grammy and Grampy, Auntie Susan, Maddie and Mikayla....and Dorothy and Toto. She's going through this imaginary friend/Wizard of Oz obsession thing, although she'll be the first to admit, "It's just pretend Dorothy, Mom...."

Whew! She just kills me!

Anyway, we're all busy trying to get ready for the holidays. We were blessed with an unusually warm weather the weekend after Thanksgiving, sunny and about 60 degrees, which allowed us to put up our outdoor decorations without getting frostbite. I even found this on my rosebush in the front yard...

We played outside for a first, Martha!

This dog loves my daughter almost as much as I do! Which is why I overlook her annoying habits, like eating my shoes, gnawing on my books and smashing and devouring jars of salsa (yes, she has a thing for salsa and apparently can eat broken glass...)

And occasionally doing this....

Martha redeems herself by letting our daughter do ANYTHING to her without so much as a whimper. A true Mama-dog if I ever saw one!

Anyway, first thing we did was don our holiday hats...

(Pay no attention to those bins and boxes in the driveway in front of the garage....)

Then we hung the wreath on our door...

Yes, the M home is always tastefully and conservatively decorated for the holidays.... (snort, snicker, Bwah-ha-ha-ha!!!!)

Well, we have to cater to the children of the neighborhood by putting up our dear friends Pooh, Tigger and Eeyore....

Of course, what's Christmas without a few pretty lights....

I mean, it's not like we have a plastic leg lamp in the window or something....


Hope everyone's doing well and enjoying the season! I've been doing some baking and will be back soon (promise!) to share!

Thanks for stopping by!