Monday, December 6, 2010

My First Ever Gingerbread House - Part 1

One of the regulars over on Allrecipes, Carrie, came up with a great idea - a virtual Gingerbread Village! Folks who wanted to participate would create their own ginger bread house to be part of a village. I loved the idea! I love diversity, and when you have people from all over the world, with many different backgrounds and memories of Christmas, likes and dislikes, it would be so cool to see what people come up with!

So, even though I don't exactly have a degree in architecture...for example:

Me: "Can we get some skylights put in the kitchen?"

Him: ""

Me: "Why not?"

Him: "Our bedroom is above our kitchen."

Bearing walls, structural support, blah blah blah...apparently you can't just take a chainsaw and cut the house in half, shift the bedroom over and nail it into place so I can get some decent light in my kitchen....

Anyway, I KNOW my architectural limitations, so I relied on Google to point me in the right direction. It led me to this recipe and tutorial. I was intimidated - it involved rolling out dough, so immediately my fear of pie crust reared it's ugly, vicious head, like the imaginary flesh-eating zombie that you know isn't (but could be) lurking in your basement when you have to run downstairs to throw clothes in the dryer at 11:05 PM on a Sunday night after watching "The Walking Dead".

Yes, I fear pie crust that much.

But I read the instructions over and over again until it sounded....well, easy! And now that it is in the past, I can tell you it WAS easy!

Here's what you do:

Print out the templates from the site. There are many others, but frankly I just liked this simple design. Cut them out, then trace them onto cardboard and cut out the cardboard shapes.

You can just cut out one of each and just use them twice. But if you're going to play around with your own unique design, it might be a good idea to cut all the pieces out and kind of piece them together to achieve the look you want.

Then, make the dough. This is soooo easy!

For one house, in a microwave-safe bowl, mix together 1 cup light corn syrup...

Add to it 3/4 cup packed brown sugar (light or dark, depending on the color dough you want - I used light)...

...and 1/2 cup plus 2 tbsp. margarine...

And then microwave on high until sugar is dissolved. I ran mine for 2 minutes, stirred, then maybe another 1 1/2 minutes.

Meanwhile, combine 4 1/2 cups flour and 1/4 tsp. salt...totally optional, but I added a tablespoon of cinnamon and a teaspoon of ground cloves, strictly for their aromatic qualities.

Whisk the dry ingredients together then add the melted corn syrup, sugar & margarine mixture and stir...

It will become kind of crumbly...

...but go ahead an knead it a bit or let the kids squish it until it comes together - just make sure there are no "hot spots" from the liquid. The dough will be warm.

Don't worry if it seems a little dry. Now you want to wrap it in plastic and just let it sit at room temperature for about 30 minutes. A little bit of condensation builds up (because the dough is still warm) and it turns it into this lovely, smooth dough - it looks almost like penuche fudge as it's setting.

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F. Lay out a sheet of foil the size of your cookie sheet on a flat surface (the link mentioned using a flat on or one with only one side vs. a rimmed baking sheet. A flat sheet will help the air to circulate more freely).

Roll the dough to 1/4" thickness - don't worry about it cracking.

Unlike pie crust dough, that you should handle as little as possible, this dough can be worked with. Just patch up or pinch together any cracks, tears or thin spots and roll smooth. Lumps of dough can be reheated in the microwave if the are not cooperating.

Keep the scraps wrapped up in plastic for other projects or decorations. I left a plastic-wrapped blob out overnight at room temperature, popped it in the microwave for ten or fifteen seconds, and I had a nice workable dough again!

"Yeah? How you like me NOW, zombie-pie crust!!!!"

Oops...sorry about that....I got a little excited for a minute. It's not often rolled out dough bows down to me like this.

Place your lightly floured cardboard templates on the dough - try to leave a good inch between them. Cut them out using a pizza cutter or a ravioli cutter...

...and carefully remove the scraps in between your shapes.

Set the cardboard pieces aside.

You can go ahead and bake them (like I did the first time...duh) OR cut doors or windows out.

I just cut additional cardboard templates and used a small paring knife to cut them, but you could use little cookies cutters, too!

Slip your baking sheet under the foil, and place the cutouts in the oven. Total baking time is about 10 - 12 minutes. If you want to create "colored glass" windows....

Unwrap some butterscotch (or other hard) candies...

Place them in a heavy duty plastic Ziploc bag and tap a few times with a hammer.

After the dough has baked about ten minutes, sprinkle the crushed candy into the window openings...

...and bake another 5 minutes or so until smooth and melted. I swirled it a couple times with a toothpick. Remove and let cool completely before trying to remove from the foil. The dough hardens quickly, but the candy will take longer - overnight would be best, but I just stuck mine in our chilly garage for about an hour and it was good to go!

Don't worry about imperfections. We're going to slap so much royal icing and candy decorations on this baby, we can cover up just about anything!

Next up: Part 2 - Assembly and royal crazy glue!

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Let It Glow, Let It Glow, LetIt Glow!


My electric bill is going to be frightful.....

But the lights are so delightful....

And as long as she loves it so......

Let it glow!

Ho - Ho- Ho!


(This is Santa, in January, when the light bill comes in.....)

Happy Holidays!

Saturday, December 4, 2010

2010 Christmas Cookie #2 - Mexican Chocolate Cookies

Mmmm...Chocolate....Cinnamon....Chili Pepper

Huh? Chili Pepper? Yes!

Christmas cookie #2 comes from Mrs Williams who posted her recipe over on Grouprecipes, and also blogged about it HERE.

The cookie dough itself is soooooo chocolatey - it looks almost like fudge!

The dough starts with butter, brown sugar and water, cooked together on the stove. Then, semi-sweet chocolate chips are added to the hot mixture and melted. You let that cool for about ten minutes, the add in an egg, vanilla, flour, baking soda, salt and chili pepper.

I've often added chocolate - either cocoa or grated unsweetened chocolate - to my chili recipes. The chocolate adds a nice richness to it. In this cookie recipe, roles are kind of reversed: chocolate is the star and the chili powder is like a back-up singer. Of course, you want a back-up singer with a great voice! Not one who's just there because of their looks, right? ;) So I used some nice Ancho Chili Powder that I purchased from

And can I just say.... I heart They always add in a couple freebies with your order - one is a current promotional item (nice ones, too, like Applewood Smoked Sea Salt or Madagascar Vanilla Bean Pods) plus, depending on the size of your order, you get to choose your own sample(s) to be included in your order! Which is how I came to obtain my Ancho Chili Powder. Shipping is very reasonable, especially if you order $40 or more - then it's FREE! And to top it off, their prices are very reasonable and the product is of very nice quality. It comes packaged in airtight zipper top plastic bags...I'm still getting used to that. You can always transfer your herbs and spices to container of your choice. I've been doing that with the ones I use frequently as I'm not real good about making sure my plastic bags are re-zipped tightly after I've opened them!

Anyhoo.....back to these yummy cookies!

After the dough's mixed, you stir in some of those Hershey's Cinnamon Baking Chips. The combination of cinnamon, chocolate and chili powder is so warm, aromatic and even a bit exotic! I chilled my dough in the fridge for easier handling....actually overnight. In the morning, the dough was HARD, so I just popped it in the microwave for about two ten-second intervals to warm it up, and after that it was easy to work with.

Used my cookie scoop to make uniform sized balls of dough...

Bakes as directed and here they are....

Very chocolatey and delicious - they keep well in airtight plastic bags or containers. I've even frozen the dough in balls and baked. (I do let them thaw slightly before baking). And if you fear chili powder, let me just say that I don't really "taste" the chili powder as much as I "feel" it - it adds a nice warmth to the cookies, that compliments the chocolate and cinnamon flavors beautifully.

So if you want something different for this year's cookie trays, definitely check these out!

Here's a link to the original recipe: Mexican Chocolate Cookies

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Tis The Season....

Well, hello there! (Um, if you're still there...)

Sorry I've been away for a while...things got kind of hectic with my Punkin starting school...

(I swear, I did not cry....)

...and her budding soccer career....

She liked this MUCH more than T-ball, although her T-ball coaches and team mates were nice. We're not real big baseball people, so she really didn't understand the game, so it took her a while to feel like she knew what to do. She did enjoy playing outfield, though, and spinning around until she was dizzy...

Soccer, on the other hand, she had at least seen before and kicked around a soccer ball from time to time. She did great! She may have only gotten one goal the whole season, but I was always so proud of her and the way she acted out on the field - listening to her coaches, high-fiving the other players and always - and I mean ALWAYS - smiling!

I did some baking during pumpkin season...and I have about 20 cups of pumpkin puree in my freezer. I have a new favorite use for pumpkin.....

Pumpkin Whoopie Pies!

Oh my, they were good! And pretty easy! You can click here for the recipe - I made a couple of minor changes: used my own Pumpkin Pie Spice Blend for the spices, and added and extra 1/2 cup confectioner's sugar to the filling (just to get a better texture) along with abut 1/4 tsp. orange extract. I know we're getting closer to Christmas, but it's not too late for a fall treat! I highly recommend these!

Speaking of Christmas and baking...

(Sing with me, now....)

"It's the most wonderful time of the year..."


So I've put up some decorations, put the Christmas music on and I'm getting ready for my annual baking adventures! I had this idea of doing "25 Days of Baking", like a cookie a day for 25 days, but .... it's December 3rd already. So let's just say I'll be doing "a lot" of baking, but I won't put a number on it! ;)

It's not too early to start, you know! Most cookies - or at least cookie doughs - freeze beautifully~just wrap them as airtight as possible. For the short term, plastic zip-type freezer bags work great!

I've already stashed some of these in the freezer...

2010 Recipe #1 - Hermit Bar Cookies from Allrecipes

Hermits remind me of my elementary school days - they were a favorite dessert of mine. Softly spiced, chewy bars, loaded with raisins and back in those seemingly pre-allergy days, walnuts. Although I was hoping to recreate the Hermit bar of my childhood, I didn't add nuts because some went to my Dad and he has no teeth :) These were not as chewy as the ones I remember, but they have a nice flavor and soft texture that keeps very well, and are a great snack with a cup of tea or coffee. These also freeze well after baking.

Thanks for stopping by! Help yourself to a Hermit and I'll pour you a cup of coffee... (or if you want a good cup of coffee, I'll run up the street to Dunkin's and get you one. I am admittedly not known for my coffee-making skills!)

Hope you come back soon to see what I'm cookin' up for this holiday season! ;)

Monday, August 30, 2010

Monumental Mountains - Part I

" live in a country where you can take an ugly old mountain and put faces on it, faces of great Americans who did so much to make our country super great, well that makes me, Rebecca Leeman, proud to be an American."

-Becky Ann Leeman, "Drop Dead Gorgeous"

Well, I have a feeling after seeing the area around Mount Rushmore that the big old mountain that Becky speaks of was never ugly...

We just returned from vacation - one that rivals the best vacation I've ever been on, which was our southwest road trip from Vegas to the Grand Canyon to Sedona to Phoenix. We came home realizing that the one thing you absolutely must see if you live or visit North America is the Grand Canyon, and it piqued our interest in visiting other National Parks throughout the country. We knew somewhere down the road, Mount Rushmore and the Black Hills National Park would be another destination.

Flash forward six years, where we went from two to three in our family. We put off any big vacations for a while, because we wanted out daughter to be old enough to appreciate it and after several east coast road trips and a venture into Ohio last year, we felt she was ready for a "big" trip. Funny thing, though, we booked this whole trip about three weeks before our departure! We weren't sure we'd be able to swing it until the very last minute, but thanks to a few things going our way and cashing in some rewards points, it all worked out.

You may have noticed - we're movie buffs. Any chance we get, we try to work in some sort of movie reference, so as we tossed around the idea of visiting Mt Rushmore, I kept repeating the "big ugly mountain" quote from "Drop Dead Gorgeous". Sure, I was joking, but a part of me - maybe because I hated the Becky Leeman character and secretly snickered when (****SPOILER ALERT!!!) the gasoline soaked swan float she was riding on exploded - kind of felt a bit of animosity toward people that feel they have to make their mark on something pure and natural. I mean, I love my country - I bitch about it a lot less than most people I know, taking the good with the bad, voting every chance I get and trying to be a good citizen and do my part to make it work - but why oh why do you have to take a perfectly beautiful mountain and totally reshape it? Of course, I DID want to see it, and I knew I would ooh and aah over it, but pride and patriotism aside, I think that some of the most beautiful things about this country are the things we haven't touched.

One visit to the Grand Canyon instilled that in me.

Our first night in Hill City, SD, we took a little ride around town then past Mt Rushmore to get our first glimpse, and in a way I was relieved to see that it looked a lot smaller than I had imagined, so it didn't seem so "fake" to me. I was able to appreciate the man-made beauty it possesses.

Ok, so it's pretty. It's majestic. It makes you think about the foundations of this country, and some of the men who made it "super great". George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln. When you think about the times they live during, their individual stories and their contributions to our country, you tend to forgive that a tiny piece of natural beauty was given up in their honor, so that we may be reminded of their history, and of ours.

You enter through the visitors' center, passing by columns adorned with each state's flag, as well as a few U.S Territories'. The sculpture seems kind of small at first.

At the base is an amphitheater, where people gather at night to watch a presentation as lights flicker on to illuminate the faces on the mountain.

What I didn't expect was how close you are able to get to the mountain. All around the base are trails you can walk to get different views of the mountain.

This one was taken from a chasm below the mountain, between two huge slabs of stone...

The walk goes on for quite a distance, some parts easy, some parts a little more challenging, but there are plenty of places to stop and rest.

It takes about an hour to walk all along the base of the mountain.

Finally you get back to your starting point and walk up a few flights of stairs to the vistors' center.

Turns out, George, Thomas, Teddy and Abe have a pretty decent view, too!

After leaving the monument, most people head back the way they came, ignoring the little sign that reads "George Washington Profile View" but we continued around the mountain and came upon this....

I left Mt. Rushmore without any feelings that the beauty of nature had been violated somehow. It's another must-see for anyone who makes it to this part of the country. And not just because of the happy, feel-good, patriotic emotions it brings, but as you travel throughout the area you also have to, as a citizen of the United States of America, take a long, hard look in the mirror and realize that in addition to all the greatness our forefathers brought to this land, there is a dark side that we should not forget, either....

Our accomplishments and our mistakes, both personal and as a nation, make us who we are, and neither should be forgotten.

To be continued.....