Friday, December 30, 2011

Make-ahead Chocolate Chunk Cookies


Anyone who knows me well, knows there’s a 99 percent chance I’ve got cookie dough in the freezer, waiting there for “emergency purposes” and ready to pop in the oven whenever “needed.” I like cookies, but I LOVE warm cookies just out of the oven. Who doesn’t love ooey-gooey chocolate cookies that are just baked and still warm?!! That’s why I try to keep our freezer “well-stocked” with homemade cookie dough.

In the years before momhood, when I worked in an office, my husband and I lived about 5 minutes away from where we worked. We had an hour for lunch, and most of the time we went home then. Many times I’d come home and stick a few pans of cookies in the oven and race back to work after lunch and share freshly-baked cookies with my coworkers. If someone was having a rough day, suddenly they weren’t!

These days, I like to have cookie dough balls ready to bake, just in case we have teenagers or other company come over for impromptu get-togethers at our house. Cookies may not be a “fancy” dessert, but they always go over well.

Two of my favorite make-ahead cookie doughs are both chocolate chunk cookie recipes—one with a chocolate dough and one with a traditional light colored dough. Here they are:

WHITE CHOCOLATE CHUNK MACADAMIA NUT COOKIES

½ cup butter, softened
½ cup shortening
¾ cup dark brown sugar
¾ cup granulated sugar
1 ½ tsp. vanilla extract
3 large eggs
2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
½ cup “quick” oatmeal
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. salt
1 ¼ cups coconut, toasted
½ cup unsalted, raw macadamia nuts, coarsely chopped
12 oz. white chocolate, cut into ¼ to ½ inch chunks

Toast coconut by placing it on an ungreased cookie sheet, and bake in a 350 degree oven. Set aside. In a large bowl, cream together butter, shortening and sugars. Blend in vanilla and eggs, and blend well. Add flour, oatmeal, baking powder and soda, and salt. Mix well. Stir in coconut, nuts and white chocolate chunks. Using a scoop or large spoon, drop mounds of dough (each about 1 heaping tablespoon in size) onto a cookie sheet lined with waxed or parchment paper. Place in freezer about 2-3 hours—until cookie dough “balls” are frozen solid and firm. Then put dough balls in aheavy-duty siplock plastic freezer bag. Store in freezer up to 6 months. When you’re ready to bake, place frozen dough balls on a cookie sheet that has been lined with parchment paper. Let thaw 20 to 30 minutes at room temperature. Bake in a 350 degree oven for 12-15 minutes, or until cookies are lightly browned around the edges. Makes around 4 dozen cookies.

DARK AND WHITE CHOCOLATE CHUNK COOKIES

1 cup butter, softened
¾ cup dark brown sugar, packed
½ cup granulated sugar
1 ½ tsp. vanilla
1 large egg
1/3 cup cocoa
1 ¾ cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. salt
8 oz. semi-sweet chocolate squares, coarsely chopped
6 oz. white chocolate squares, coarsely chopped
Optional: ½ cup chopped walnuts, pecans or macadamia nuts

Cream butter and sugars together; beat until light and fluffy. Add vanilla and egg, and blend well. Add cocoa, flour, soda and salt; mix well. Stir in chocolate chunks and nuts. Use a large spoon or small ice cream scoop to make dough balls about the size of a ping pong ball. Drop onto a cookie sheet lined with plastic wrap or waxed paper and put in the freezer. After a couple hours dough balls will have firmed up and you can put them in a freezer bag. Store in the freezer up to 6 months. Thaw in fridge at least 4 hours before baking, or at room temperature 20-30 minutes. Bake at 375 degrees for 8 to 10 minutes. Cool 1 minute, and remove from cookie sheet. Makes 3dozen very large cookies.

Here’s a photo of my cookie dough ball freezer bags, which I just pulled out of the freezer this afternoon.

Now, I better get back to my baking!
~Becky

Buffets: The Easy Way to Entertain


When we have friends over to dinner, unless it’s a very formal sit-down meal, it’s almost always a buffet. I love buffets! Guests can go through the “food line” and after they’re done, choose a table and a seat to sit at. A lot of people really seem to like to decide for themselves where to sit.

Buffets are easy. Other than putting a tablecloth on the table and perhaps a centerpiece, you don’t have to do anything else to “set” the table. Guests get their own plates, glasses and eating utensils on the buffet line. That cuts down a little on your prep work as the host.

Another plus: You don’t have to try to fit all the serving dishes on the table(s) where you’re eating. That’s really the main reason I like buffets: we always have LOTS of different entrées and side dishes to choose from at our dinner parties; there’s not room to put all the platters and serving bowls on our dining room table or the buffet/side tables that are adjacent. However, we have a good-sized, rectangular-shaped center island and two other large counters in the kitchen—which is perfect for setting up a buffet.

But while buffets can definitely be easier to pull off than sit-down dinners, you still need to put in some advance planning to make them work. Here are some suggestions:

*If your dinner is one where the guests can sit wherever they choose, make sure you have enough seating for everyone. If there’s not enough room around your dining and kitchen tables, you might set up folding tables and folding chairs. You may also clear coffee and end tables in the living or family room for people to sit at. Folding TV trays can also be set out if you have them. If it’s a very casual meal—and you’re serving food that does not require a knife and fork to eat it—you may be okay just having your guests sit on sofas and chairs with their plates on their laps.

*Decide where you’re going to set up your buffet line. I already mentioned that I set up mine on my kitchen countertops and center island. If that’s not something you have available, you could set up folding tables. You may need to get creative. I have a friend with a “tight” kitchen who has a large, 3 foot by 6 foot piece of plywood that she lays on top of her washer and dryer in her laundry room (which is just a few feet away from her kitchen) for at least part of her buffet line when she hosts parties. Ideally, wherever you set up your buffet line, it should be a location close to the seating area, and there should be enough space for guests to go through the line without crossing into each other’s paths.

* Set up your buffet line in a logical order, so that guests won’t have to backtrack. Stack the dinner plates at the beginning of the line. Follow this with the meat dish, starchy side dishes (potatoes, rice pilaf, pasta, etc.), cooked vegetables, tossed green salads and bread. Be sure to place trivets or hot trays under the hot dishes. Set out serving utensils next to each item being served. Put napkins and eating utensils at the end of the line, so your guests won’t have to juggle with these items while they’re dishing themselves out food. Salad dressings, sauces and other condiments should be next to the food they go with (for instance, sliced onions and pickles next to the grilled hamburgers, croutons next to the salad bowl, and gravy next to the bowl of mashed potatoes).

* Ideally, have a different table or countertop just for beverages and cups. If you have several desserts, put those on still another table or countertop, with space for a carafe of coffee or your coffee maker and cream and sugar dispensers.

* Before your guests arrive, put Post-it labels on each serving container (identifying what food will go in each dish), and place the containers where they should go on the buffet table. That way, if some of your guests arrive early and volunteer to help you set up, they’ll know exactly what food goes where. Also, you’ll be less stressed when you’re trying to set out all the food, because you won’t have to be hurriedly trying to figure out last-minute what serving dish would work for what food item. You’ve already decided this in advance, and now it’s just a simple matter of putting the food in the proper serving containers.

* Choose menu items that are easy to serve and dish up. Something like hamburgers and hot dogs are always good for buffets because all guests have to do is use tongs to pick up a piece of meat. For something like lasagna, cut out “squares” ahead of time so guests can just use a spatula to scoop out a piece. If you’re serving a roast of some kind, slice it up before your guests go through the line so all they have to do is pick up a slice with some tongs. Don’t expect them to do their own cutting. The same goes with desserts. Cut up pies, cakes and cheesecakes ahead of time, so that all guests have to do is use a pie server to get themselves a piece. Don't set a cake out on the buffet line uncut; if you do, chances are none of your guests will want to be the first to cut the cake. As the host, you need to do it for them.

* If you’ve got a lot of guests and the food on your buffet will be set out for quite a while, invest in some chafing dishes for the warm entrées, and some chilled serving platters and bowls (with a tray for ice that fits under the platter or bowl) for your foods that need to stay cold. The latter is especially nice for BBQs and cookouts during the hot summer months, when food can sometimes spoil in an hour or two.

* Don’t forget to set out a trash can for your guests to dispose of paper plates and disposable cups and eating utensils. I have a collapsible round laundry hamper that I bought from Target which I use as a garbage can for parties. It’s not too big, and the standard-sized trash bags fit perfectly inside. Of course, this last point is important if you’re using disposable plates and eating utensils. If you’re using “real” plates, cups and eating utensils, you’ll need to have space in your sink or on a countertop for guests to stack them. I actually have a large collection of plastic plates that we use for buffets, and we’ve used them over and over again. In fact, they’ve more than paid for themselves multiple times. The plates look just like your standard paper plates, yet they’re made of plastic and are very sturdy…and they’re dishwasher safe. I found these at Target as well, and they’ve been a great investment.

Well, that’s the main thoughts I have on buffets. Hope my tips have been helpful!

~Becky

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Grandma's Beef Stew


Last month, I made a post about how to plan a soup party. This evening, as I was making beef stew for dinner, I realized I forgot to include that recipe in my list of favorites for a soup party. I decided I’d post this recipe now.

Stew is wonderful any time of the year, but especially when it’s cold outside. Okay…here in Dallas, it’s not exactly cold…at least by Midwest standards..but it’s still somewhat chilly. So tonight the stew really hit the spot.

I got this recipe from my grandmother when I was a teenager, and have fond memories eating it at her house when I was growing up. I’ve made it for my own family a lot over the years, and it’s one of my husband’s and sons’ favorite meals. You may enjoy this recipe too.

GRANDMA’S BEEF STEW

4 lbs. beef chuck roast, cut into 1-inch cubes (cube when beef is semi-frozen, for easy cutting!)
4 T. oil
5 cups water
2 large yellow onions, sliced thinly
3 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
2 ½ tsp. garlic powder
3 bay leaves
1 T. salt
2 tsp. granulated sugar
2 tsp. paprika
½ tsp. black pepper
¼ tsp. ground cloves
2 lb. bag carrots, peeled and sliced in ¼-inch slices
3 lbs. potatoes, peeled and cut into ½ to ¾ inch cubes
2/3 cup water
1/3 cup all purpose flour

Brown beef cubes in oil in large Dutch oven. Then add 5 cups of water and the onions, Worcestershire sauce, garlic powder, bay leaves, salt, sugar, paprika, pepper and cloves. Let simmer over stove, uncovered, for an hour. Remove bay leaves. Add carrots and potatoes. Cover pot and cook for another 30-40 minutes, or until vegetables are tender. At the end of the cooking time, blend 2/3 cup water and flour together in a small bowl. Pour into stew and blend in and stir another 2-3 minutes—until stew is thickened. Makes about 10 to 12 large servings.

Enjoy!
~Becky

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Mucho Ground Beef Nachos


One of the easiest, yummiest, most well received foods I serve to guests has got to be nachos. I’ve made them recently for friends who came over to play cards. Nachos are also great for Super Bowl and other watch-the-sporting-event-on-TV parties. They’re not fancy, but most people seem to love them.

Everyone has their own recipe for making nachos. Here’s mine:

BECKY’S MUCHO GROUND BEEF NACHOS

1 lb. lean ground beef
1 pkg. taco seasoning
1 (12 oz.) bag tortilla chips (I prefer On the Border)
2 (15 oz.) cans refried beans (I prefer Amy’s Organic)
8 oz. Monterey Jack cheese, shredded
8 oz. cheddar cheese, shredded
1 cup guacamole (homemade or Wholly Guacamole)
1 ½ cups fresh salsa
1 cup sour cream
1 (4 oz.) can diced jalapenos
1 (4 oz.) can sliced black olives

Cook ground beef in skillet over stove. Drain grease and add 1 cup water and taco seasoning packet. Simmer 10-15 minutes. Turn off heat and set aside.

Place tortilla chips over a large glass platter (or two 10-inch glass pie plates). Spoon refried beans on top, trying to get some beans on each chip. Add ground beef and cheeses, spreading evenly. Bake in a 350 degree oven for 5-10 minutes, or cook in a microwave for 2-3 minutes—just until cheese has melted. Remove from oven. Top nachos with guacamole, fresh salsa, sour cream jalapenos and black olives. Serve immediately.

Enjoy!

~Becky

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Favorite Glazed Sugar Cookies


Over the past year, we’ve had a family project at my house of taking the many boxes of old negatives from the last 25 years (basically my entire adult life!) and scanning the negatives and photos. I came across some really cute photos of my sons when they were little, helping to decorate sugar cookies. That was always one of their favorite past-times (and truth be told, they still like decorating cookies!).

I’ve used the same recipe over the years, and thought I’d post it here.

FAVORITE SUGAR COOKIES

1 cup butter, softened
1 ½ cups powdered sugar
1 large egg
1 tsp. vanilla extract
½ tsp. almond extract
2 ½ cups unbleached white or all purpose flour
1/8 tsp. salt
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. cream of tartar

Cream butter and sugar together. Add egg and extracts and blend thoroughly. Stir in flour, salt, soda and cream of tartar until well-blended. Refrigerate for 30-60 minutes, to make dough easy to work with. Roll dough onto a lightly floured surface to about ¼ to 1/8 inch thick. Heat oven to 375 degrees. Lightly coat baking sheet with cooking oil spray. Bake cookies for 7 to 8 minutes, or until they are slightly golden around edges. Colored sugar or sprinkles can be added to cookies before baking. Or, frost and decorate cookies after they are baked and cooled on rack.

In the above photo, my sons just put sprinkles on cookies for decorations. In recent years, I’ve been decorating my cut-out cookies by “painting” them with a glaze. (After all, the point of decorating the cookies was no longer for my kids to have fun decorating them with sprinkles—and eating sprinkles! Now I wanted the cookies to look a little more professional—kind of like what you might see at a bakery.)

Here’s my favorite sugar cookie glaze recipe. This is one that it’s a combination of several that I’ve found and “tweaked” a bit. It works wonderfully!

PERFECT SUGAR COOKIE GLAZE

2 cups powdered sugar, sifted
3 T. light corn syrup
4 T. water
2 tsp. vanilla extract or other flavoring
Food coloring (paste is preferred, but liquid coloring will also do)

Blend the powdered sugar, corn syrup, water and vanilla together. Stir in food coloring, a very small amount at a time until you get the color you want (with the paste coloring, lighter colors are generally tastier). Stir well. Using small water color or pastry paint brushes, you can “paint” the glaze onto your cookies. Let the glazed cookies set out for 30-60 minutes to harden. Then you can stack them and they won’t stick.

Here is a photo of some glazed cut-out cookies that I made for a western-themed party:

Happy baking!
~Becky

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

MEXICAN SOPAIPILLAS


It’s winter break from school. As my sons often do when they’re off from school, they invited three of their friends to spend a couple days over here at our house. They’re really nice boys, so it’s always a pleasure having them over here.

Of course, then there’s always the question…what do you feed five teenage boys? Yesterday morning my oldest son got up and made an egg, toast and sausage and breakfast for everyone. Last night we went out for Mexican food after meeting two other families for bowling. Munching on chips and salsa, nachos and quesadillas…that was a great way to fill up a crowd!

This morning I felt like sticking with the Mexican food theme. I already had fresh fruit in the house. Then the idea came to me…sopaipillas would be great for a fun morning breakfast! That’s what we made. They turned out great!

Here’s the recipe:

MEXICAN SOPAIPILLAS

2 cups all purpose or unbleached white flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
1/3 cup shortening (chilled at least ½ hour in fridge or freezer)
4-5 T. cold water
Oil for deep frying

Sift flour, baking powder and salt together. Using a pastry blender or your fingers, cut in the shortening until mixture resembles corn meal (you may still see pea-sized pieces of shortening in the mixture). Sprinkle water over the mixture, a tablespoon at a time, just until the dough holds together. Roll thinly, and cut into triangles. (I like to take small ball of dough—about the size of a ping pong ball—and roll that into a circle about 6 inches in diameter.) Fry golden brown in a deep, very hot oil. The triangles will brown and puff up. When one side browns, turn over the triangles and cook that side too. Remove from oil, and drain for at least a few minutes on paper towels. Roll in cinnamon and sugar, or serve with softened butter and honey.


Alternatively, as a short cut, you can buy flour tortillas, cut each of them into quarters, and fry them.

Enjoy!
~Becky

Monday, December 12, 2011

DO-IT-YOURSELF HOME SPA PARTY


Are you tired? Overwhelmed? Stressed? Feel like you need a lift? Could you just use some gal time? Who couldn’t, right?!! A spa is great place to experience such a pick-me-up. But a trip to a spa can be costly, and these days, most of us are tightening up our spending a bit (and most of us would like to tighten up our tummies too. Hmmmm.). Well, the truth is, you can still have a spa experience and share it with a group of gal friends, and not have to spend bu-ku bucks. You just need to plan your own spa day at home. It can be done rather inexpensively (or more lavishly, depending on your budget), and it’s a nice “gift” if you will to share with your friends.

This past Sunday I hosted a spa party for 17 of my friends at my home. We started late morning and went until early evening. People could arrive or leave whenever they wanted. It was a relaxing, refreshing day. We might have been filling up our tummies more than we were tightening them, but we sure enjoyed ourselves in the process.

Here’s what you need to do to have your own home spa party:

INVITATIONS

Send out your invitations at least 2-3 weeks in advance, so that most of your guests will have enough notice to block out some time to be able to come. I used a spa design invitation available on evite. Evite had several cute spa party invitations to choose from.

SET THE MOOD

* Make your home a “testosterone-free zone” during the spa party. You need to make sure your husband and sons have an alternative activity they can do while your party is going on. Believe me, they’re not going to hang around. There is just something about aromatherapy candles and music CDs with “feng shui” in the titles that really creeps out a lot of guys. After I picked out the date and time for my spa party, the Sweat males in my household planned a “guys afternoon.” One of my sons’ friends (and the son of one of my guests) opted to hang out with them for the afternoon too. They went to Home Depot and Cabella’s, and then headed over to a friend’s home (the husband of one of my other spa party guests) to watch the Chicago Bears football game (I won’t say anything more about that, since I have one family member who is quite unhappy right now about how the Bears have been playing without Jay Cutler).

Here’s a photo of my husband, two sons and their friend, filling our fireplace with wood before our spa party. They wouldn’t look at my camera or me or my friends who were helping me set up; I think they were worried we already had robes on (but we didn’t!). But they were very sweet to get a fire going for us before they left. The crackling fire really added a lot to the whole spa ambiance.

If you have small children, you will probably want to send them to a babysitter or a relative’s house while you’re having your party. Ask your guests to leave their kids at home too. This is one event you’re not going to want any distractions from young children.

* Music Play List. My choices were two piano melodies: “A Peaceful Soak” by George Nascimento, and “Spa” by Roger St. Denis. We played each CD several times during the afternoon—not too loud—but enough we could hear them. They really set a relaxing, mellow mood for us, and nobody minded if we played the same tunes over and over again.

* Decorate. For a splurge, I ordered two eucalyptus scented candles Thymes (www.thymes.com). I don’t always like a lot of scented candles; sometimes they can smell artificial or too strong. But these Thymes candles have a wonderful, earthy fragrance that is not too strong, and each is advertised to burn for at least 40 hours. I placed about 20 other aromatherapy candles throughout my kitchen, dining room, family room and first floor bathrooms—some large, others smaller votives--all “herby” or earthy scents that complemented with, or at least didn’t compete with, the eucalyptus candles.

I also placed four wicker baskets filled with hand towels and wash cloths in various locations—my center island and countertop area in the kitchen, the coffee table in my family room, and on the seating area in front of the fireplace. This added to the spa feel, and also was very functional.

You can see in the very top photo at the beginning of this blog post that I also placed wooden massage hand tools out on tabletops--further adding to the spa atmosphere.

ATTIRE

Most of the time the dress for any of my parties is “comfy casual.” That’s especially true for a spa party. Since my home was a “testosterone-free zone” for the day, I told my guests they were welcome to bring robes and slippers to change into once they arrived—just like you’d do at a “real” spa. Or, if they weren’t comfortable with that, at the very least I suggested they wear comfy sweat pants (elastic waistbands—my favorite!), soft and roomy shirts, and flip flops. Since the hot tub would be on all afternoon outside, I also encouraged guests to bring their swimsuits.

THE TREATMENTS

There are many different treatments you can offer at your home spa. I decided to focus on the face, hands and feet. It’s good to designate a room in the house for each of your spa services, and have a schedule in mind of what you plan to do when. First, we did the face and hand treatments in the kitchen (although guests were welcome to recline in the family room while their masks were on) and that followed with the foot treatments in the family room. Lunch was mid-afternoon. We did detox wraps and Mary Kay makeovers after lunch. I sent out my schedule ahead of time to my evite list of what I was planning. That way if guests only had a couple hours free to come to the party, they could choose when to arrive. Not everyone could stay for the full 11 am to 5 pm block of time I had allotted for the event.

For the face, we had four different kinds of masks that guests could choose from. All of the ones I chose were good for normal to dry “sensitive” skin, and helped add softness and moisture. The ones with fruit and grains help to naturally exfoliate the skin, cleansing deeply into the pores.

The first three mask mixtures were homemade concoctions. You can’t make these up too far in advance, but I didn’t want to have to stop and mix them up after everyone arrived either. So I made these up about 1 hour before guests arrived. Each of these recipes makes enough for 2-4 people.

* Dark chocolate mask
2/3 cup cocoa
¼ cup heavy cream
2 T. cottage cheese
½ cup honey
2 T. oatmeal, ground finely
Mix all of the ingredients together in a blender until smooth.

*Lavender mask
1 cup oatmeal
2 T. flax seeds
2 T. dried lavender buds
1/3 cup Bentonite or white cosmetic clay (available at Whole Foods and health food stores)
2-3 T. almond or olive oil
Optional but a nice touch: 1-2 drops of lavender essential oil
Put ingredients in a food processor or coffee grinder and blend to create a smooth, thick paste.

*Avocado banana mask
1 ripe avocado, pitted
1 ripe banana
2 T. flax seed or whole wheat flour
¼ cup plain or vanilla yogurt
Mash together the banana and avocado with a potato masher. Add the flax or flour and the yogurt and blend until smooth.

* Black mud masks. One of my guests brought a jar of Dead Sea Black Mud, which many of us used on our faces. This was great! Dead Sea mud is known for alleviating dry, dull skin, along with helping with skin conditions like eczema, psoriasis and acne. Made with Dead Sea minerals, plant extracts, seaweed, olive oil and other organic matter, this product is good for all over your body, not just on your face. It’s easy to use. Just apply about a 1/8 inch layer to your skin, leave on for 20 minutes until completely dry, and then rinse off with warm water. You can buy a 16-oz. jar of this product from Amazon.com for $25.49 (with free shipping). My guests loved it!!

The same person who brought the black mud, also brought some lovely sugar scrubs—in very soothing, minty scents—for us to use to apply to our faces when removing our masks. I also had facial moisturizers on hand to use post-face masks.

Before the party, I had gone down to Dollar Tree and Dollar General and bought several packages of cloth hair bands and ties, so that guests could tie back their hair. I also bought small spatulas and spongy paint brushes for applying the masks. These were all set out on the countertop. So the first thing everyone did was tie back their hair. Guests found a partner, and then each would gently spread the mask mixture on the other’s face. Then they could lie in a reclined position for the next 15-20 minutes, with cucumber slices on their eyes (which we all know soothes tired eyes). Afterwards the masks were rinsed off with warm water and a soft cloth.

For the hands we had:

* Pumpkin Hand Mask/Wrap
1 15 oz. can pumpkin
¼ cup honey
Mix pumpkin and honey together; warm slightly in microwave. Dip hands in bowl to get a good coating of the pumpkin mixture. Put each hand into a gallon-sized plastic bag and press bags around hands. Relax with the bags tightly around your hands for 15 minutes before rinsing.

* Paraffin wax treatments. I got out my HoMedics ParaSpa paraffin wax bath, and guests took turns dipping their hands in for a warm melted wax treatment. Afterwards, everyone placed plastic gallon-sized storage bags on their waxed hands. After 15 minutes, the bags and wax were removed, and our hands felt soothed, hydrated and smooth. It’s welcome relief during cold weather when our skin is dry and chapped!


For the feet we had:

*Herbal foot soaks
I set out 8 plastic dishwashing tubs for guests to take turns using for soaking their feet. I found some wonderful recipes online and in some of my home spa recipe books for making homemade foot soaks. I also found a product online called Dancin’ Feet Herbal Foot Soak (available from www.localharvest.com) and decided to go with that instead of making my own, since it was a really good price and actually less costly than making my own concoctions. A 5 oz. bag costs $4.95, and each bag is filled with a mixture of peppermint, rosemary and thyme leaves, Yarrow flowers, orange peel, rose petals, sea salt, oatmeal and essential oils. It comes with muslin bags, which you fill, and then toss into a tub of warm water. Basically it’s like a foot soak tea bag, and it smells so-o-o-o good! We got about 8 foot soaks out of each package.

After soaking their feet, guests could apply foot creams and a nice, herby peel-off foot masks (I bought several tubes of Earth Therapeutics Tea Tree Oil foot peel for this). I also plugged in my HoMedics Elite Foot Massager and set it down in front of a comfy chair—which provided professional deep kneading massage with heat for the feet—for guests to use.

For all of these treatments, you’ll need bathroom areas and kitchen sinks available so guests can clean and rinse. We had two guest bedrooms downstairs and an extra large double sink on our center island that everyone could use for this. Besides the baskets of hand towels and washcloths that I already mentioned, I also set out a basket of disposable facial wipes, cotton balls and Q-tips on the kitchen counter, along with a large magnifying makeup mirror which was helpful for guests who were applying their own masks.

I know a gal who sells Mary Kay makeup, and she was available to do makeovers for anyone who wanted. This was offered after all the other treatments were done, and we had this gal set up in our front office, which served as her own makeup salon.

If guests wanted, they were welcome to use the outdoor hot tub any time during the afternoon. I had a stack of beach towels ready for them and at their disposal, and plastic goblets too so they could sip and chat outside in the tub.

* “It Works!” detox wrap
In addition to the services already mentioned, I also ordered a number of It Works! body and chin/neck detox wraps that guests could purchase. Most of us have a lot of toxins in our body. They come from environmental pollutants, and the foods we consume (soda, alcohol, coffee and processed foods are some of the biggest culprits!). If we’re under a lot of stress, that can cause more toxins to build up in our bodies. These toxins are stored in our fat cells. As more toxins build up, our fat cells increase in size(and therefore our body size). The wraps from It Works are designed to detox your body, causing you to skin to tighten and tone up. You lose inches in the process. The majority of my guests took advantage of the opportunity to try either or both a chin/neck or body (which was applied to the tummies) wrap. We did these towards the end of the afternoon, following lunch. The wraps were left on for 45 minutes, during which guests were to drink 2-3 glasses of water. As is typical, after their wraps were removed, my guests reported that they lost between ½ and 2 inches on their waistline. I haven’t talked to any of my guests in the last 24 hours, but generally people lose even more in the 72 hours after a wrap treatment. I can’t wait to hear how they did! I do think this is a great product, one that is a perfect addition to a spa party. If you’d like to have It Works! at your own spa party, or if you’d just like to get more information, here’s a website you can check out: http://trimyourbody.itworks.net.

Other spa services you could offer at your own spa party: You can hire licensed professionals to come and give mini-services without all the extras like robes and slippers. A nail tech gives manicures and pedicures, a massage therapist gives massage, and an esthetician can give mini-facials and do make-up. You can find them online, or, you could call a local beauty school to see if one of their graduates or students could come out and do facials and manicures.

Sometimes athletic clubs can refer you to massage professionals. I found one masseuse who did shoulder massages for $1 a minute, plus a $20 set-up fee. She only required that we could provide her a minimum of two hours of work. Guests would just need to pay for the number of minutes they wanted her massaging them. We ended up not using her, though, because we didn’t have enough people who wanted shoulder massages. Still, I thought I’d mention this anyway, just in case you might want to do it at your own spa party.

The great thing about spa parties is there’s a long list of treatments you could offer. You could offer manicures, pedicures, yoga sessions, facials, massages — the choices are endless. You just have to choose which services are best for your particular group of guests.

THE CUISINE

Late morning and all afternoon snacks and refreshments:

**Pitchers of ice water with fruit, cucumbers, mint leaves
**One beverage dispenser filled with iced strawberry pomegranate herb tea and a pitcher of iced blueberry herb tea
**Bottles of sparkling water and sparkling juice/cider
**Hot herb tea and decaf coffee service
**Fresh fruit platters
**Raw vegetables and dip platters
**Trays of garlic humus and pita chips
**Cucumber sandwiches
**Garlic cheeseball and crackers
**Mini banana nut bread loaves and mini cranberry pumpkin bread loaves--sliced

About 2:30 pm, I served lunch, which was a large tossed salad bar buffet on my kitchen center island, which I called “Sweat Tomatoes.” (I put the sign next to the bowl of tomatoes, which literally were “Sweat tomatoes,” because my husband had just picked from our garden.) Guests could choose from the following to make their own customized tossed salads, just like they would get a Sweet Tomatoes restaurant:
--Red-tipped leaf lettuce
--Spinach leaves
--Shredded red cabbage
--Sliced green onions
--Sliced cucumbers
--Sliced celery
--Sliced fresh mushrooms
--Alfalfa sprouts
--Bean sprouts
--Sliced red, yellow and green bell peppers
--Shredded carrots
--Broccoli flowerets
--Cauliflower flowerets
--Black olives
--Garbanzo beans (chick peas)
--Canned corn
--Canned black beans
--Grilled, marinated chicken, cut in strips
--Diced hard-boiled eggs
--Croutons
--Tortilla strips
--Candied walnuts for salads
--Almond Accents
--Grated cheddar and Monterey Jack cheeses
--Eight different salad dressings (including my favorite, homemade creamy cilantro)


For dessert, we had:
--Mini chocolate and raspberry mousse cups for dessert
--Belgian chocolate cup candies
--Fruit salad

Several of my guests offered to bring food items, and I had them bring a lot of the afternoon snack trays and bottled beverages, and fruit salad for dessert. That eased my workload and helped me in terms of refrigerator space (I only have space to store so many trays and bowls of food that have been prepared!).

We had a lot of food leftover, but that meant I had something to feed to my hungry husband and sons after they returned home that evening. Since the Bears lost in overtime, I made sure to have some leftover chocolate cups on hand to give to my literally-grieving 16-year-old son. I was also able to send some “doggie bags” (or more appropriately, “hubby bags”) for the husbands of ladies who had come to the party. We usually have a lot of leftover food, and can’t eat it all by ourselves. I always try to have disposable plastic containers on hand for big parties, so that guests can take some extra food home. And some gals did assemble some salads for their husbands before they left on Sunday.

PARTY GIFTS

It’s nice if you can give some beauty-related party favors to all of your spa party guests. I had a basket of homemade soaps and hand lotions setting out in a large basket, and let guests know they were welcome to pick out some to take home.

It may sound like a lot of work. There are ways you can cut down on expenses and prep work. For instance, you could just serve snacks. Actually, we had so many snacks sitting out on different tables during the day, many of my guests thought that WAS the meal. Some were surprised when I announced that the salad bar was ready. So you could just have snacks and put on the invitation that you would like everyone to bring a snack of some kind. I didn’t do that with this. I only had people bring food if they asked. If you wanted to have the salad bar, you could ask each guest to bring 1-2 salad bar items.

Well, I think I’ve probably given you a pretty good idea of what you can do at a spa party. It’s really a wonderful way to relax and unwind with your gal pals. Even you’re the one who’s hosting, with planning, you’re sure to come away feeling relaxed and refreshed—along with your guests!

Happy home spa-ing!
~Becky

Friday, December 9, 2011

PARTY MANNERS 101

The focus of my blog has been hospitality from the host’s perspective. But you know, the guests have have an important part to play as well. Even if the host is a five-star entertainer, a party can turn into a disaster really quickly if the guests don’t mind their manners or commit a lot of social faux pas.

As a guest, it’s important to display proper social etiquette. Really, it’s a way to show appreciation to the hosts. You should want to do whatever you can as a guest to help the party go more smoothly. Remember: your hosts may already be a little worn out from all the party prep; you don’t want to add to their anxiety. You want the other guests to enjoy themselves too, and you should want to make sure none of your actions put a damper on the evening for them. And certainly, good party etiquette is important if you want to be invited back…and if you want to keep an untarnished reputation.

Every host probably has his or her own list of what’s most important. For what it’s worth, here’s my list of essential manners for party guests:

1. Be on time, but not too early. If you’re going to be more than 15 minutes late, call ahead to let your hosts know. Don’t be offended if they decide to start the meal without you. That may be necessary if the food is already cooked and cooling off, or if the other guests have already arrived and they’re starved. At the other end of the spectrum, don’t show up more than a few minutes early. Your host may be like me, and save getting herself showered and ready for the party as the last “task” to do before the party. I’ve had guests show up a half hour early, without calling me first to ask if it was okay. It was more than a little embarrassing for me to have to answer the door with sauces splattered all over my clothes (from food prep) and bits of dough in my hair. (Admittedly, I’m a messy cook!)

2. Leave your Blackberry, iPad, iPhone and other electronics at home. I’ve been at get-togethers before where some of the guests did more “interacting” with their cell phones than with other guests. If your job requires you to always have your pager or cell phone with you, put it on vibrate and only answer it if it’s critical you do so.

3. Show consideration for the host’s home and furnishings. If you see a mat and shoes by the door, wipe your shoes on the mat and park your shoes with the rest of them. Don’t insist on wearing your shoes anyway, and don’t become offended if your host tells you she doesn’t allow shoes on the carpet. Other important considerations include: Don’t rest your feet on the coffee table. Set your drinks down on coasters, or ask first if it’s okay to set the glass down directly on the coffee table. If you have young children, keep an eye on them during the evening; don’t allow them to wander around aimlessly throughout the house, opening closets, etc. (I have a special closet in my house that has board games, blocks, stuffed animals and other toys in it. When little children are over, they know they can go to that closet without having to ask. I’ve told them that many times and they just know. But the rest of the house is not for “free” exploring.)

4. Sit where you’re asked to sit. If there aren’t placecards, wait for your hosts to direct you where to sit. If the host has put place cards at each setting, don’t move them around to suit your desires or complain about where you’ve been asked to sit. Your host has probably taken some time to devise just the right seating arrangement. Don’t throw a wrench in her planning by trying to move people around. I once had a large sit-down dinner where some of the guests complained because they were at a table with me and my husband instead of another table. I wanted them by us so we could get to know them better.

5. Don’t add to the guest list. You will put your host on the spot if you ask, “Is it okay if I bring So and So?” This is especially important if it’s a sit-down meal where there are only so many seats at the table. But even if it’s a party where everyone is standing around, there’s still only so much space available for guests. Not only that, there may be certain guests that a host has not invited to a particular party, because that person clashes with another guest, and the host is trying to keep the evening tension-free.

6. If you’ve been assigned to bring something, such as a cheese and cracker tray or tossed salad, arrive at the get-together with that food item ready to serve. Don’t arrive at the dinner party with ingredients to make the salad or blocks of cheese that need to be cut up. That preparation should be done ahead of time. There may not be space in your host’s kitchen for you to do that kind of prep work.

7. If, due to unforeseen circumstances and you must cancel last-minute attending a dinner party (and it should be for “good” reasons, like you have the bubonic plague and you don’t want it spreading to others!) call your host directly and tell her. Without getting too personal, state why you can’t come and that you regret missing out on the evening. Thank her for her inviting you, even though you can’t come after all. Don’t just send her a text, assuming she’ll get it. (There are still people like me, who don’t text, and never receive text messages that are sent.) Also, don’t simply tell another guest (who’s also going to the party) that you’re not going to show up after all, and ask him to let the host know. You need to talk to the host directly. Now, it can be okay to send the host an email letting her know, if you KNOW she checks email regularly (my guests know that I do), meaning several times a day, and that she will get the message before the party.

8. If you have a “community” of friends—church congregation, school, fellow office employees—be sensitive to the fact that everyone in “the group” may not be invited to a dinner or party. Even if the hosts live in a 15,000 square foot mansion, they may not be able to invite everyone. There’s bound to be at least a few people left off the guest list at any one event. Be mindful of that. For that reason, it may not be the best idea to post on Facebook that you’re going to an exclusive soirée if others are going to feel left out when they find out. Another important suggestion: if someone asks you to go out to dinner with them on a particular night and you’ve already invited to the MacGillicuttys’ shin-dig, simply reply, “I’m sorry, we’ve already got plans for that evening.” Don’t respond by saying, “Oh, you’re not invited to the MacGillicuttys’ party?!!” And, getting back to point #5, don’t tell the person, “Oh, I’m sure you can come to the party at the MacGillicuttys’ place. They always have room.” They may not.

9. If your host starts clearing the tables after a meal, offer to help. If it’s a large party and she’s got lots of cleaning up to do, don’t sit around chatting while the host works until midnight cleaning up. This has happened to me. Now I will also add, sometimes I’m not concerned about clean-up, especially if the next day is blocked out for cleanup, and if all the guests are really enjoying themselves, all sitting by each other in the family room having a good conversation. I may not want to break that group up. In that case, don’t insist on cleaning up. Follow your host’s direction.

10. Don’t dominate the conversation, bring up a lot of controversial topics, or ask other guests or your hosts personal or prying questions. I can think of a particular “friend” we used to have over where we used to live years ago and practically everything he said used the pronouns “I” or “me.” He talked about himself the whole time, and rarely tried to engage others. Or, he would "talk shop" with another person a the table and completely leave out the person sitting between them. I can also remember dinner parties where one guest asked another personal questions like “Why are you still single?” or challenged the other about political views and the offended party stormed out of the room. The who party was a fiasco after that, because everyone was tensed up about what happened. It seems like commonsense, but try not to do these things. Think about your words before you open your mouth to talk. If your words are going to grate on other people, don’t speak them.

11. Be trustworthy. One individual used to joke with me that she was going to inspect my medicine cabinets and nightstand drawers, just to see what was in there. After that I’d always feel a little on guard whenever she came over. It’s not that I had anything that awful in my cabinets and drawers. Still, I didn’t really want people looking in there. Your hosts may have medicines or certain items like their checkbooks that they’d prefer others didn’t see. Resist the urge to snoop around when you’re visiting someone else’s home.

12. Don’t overstay your welcome. If your hosts start yawning or telling you about what a busy day tomorrow’s going to be, take the hint and say good-bye. Don’t just continue talking. Pack up your things and get ready to head home. End the evening on a good note.

That’s my list. Now I don’t have a lot of guests exhibiting social faux pas, but it does happen now and then. And the times that these things did happen, it did take away from the evening. That’s why I think these points are worth mentioning.

What about you? Do you have any ideas along this line? What do you think are some of the most important manners for party guests to display?

I’ll be waiting to hear from you!
~Becky

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Turkey and Chicken Rub Recipe


This year at Thanksgiving, I made a special herb rub for our turkey that got rave reviews from our guests—and from the very particular males in my family. I know Thanksgiving is already a couple in the past (time sure flies, doesn’t it?!!), but I thought I’d post the recipe for my turkey rub anyway. Actually, it’s a yummy rub on roast chickens and Cornish game hens too. So just in case you might be doing some poultry-roasting this winter, even if it’s not a turkey, here’s the rub recipe:

BECKY’S POULTRY RUB RECIPE

1 T. fresh thyme, chopped finely
2 T. fresh rosemary leaves, chopped finely
2 T. fresh sage, crumbled finely
2 tsp. paprika
2 tsp. poultry seasoning
2 tsp. salt
½ tsp. black pepper
¼ cup salad or olive oil

Mix all of the ingredients except the oil together in a coffee grinder or food processor. Add the oil. Rub the mixture all around the turkey and bake as usual, whether that’s in a covered roaster or an oven cooking bag.

This recipe makes enough for a 20 to 25 pound turkey. Obviously, if you were going to use this rub in a small turkey or a roast chicken, you would need to cut this recipe down at least by half. As a do-head tip, you can make up this rub mixture ahead of time with all of the ingredients except the oil. When ready to roast your bird, you would brush it with oil and then sprinkle the dry herb and spice mixture on top.

Happy roasting!
~Becky

Friday, December 2, 2011

Chocolate Crinkle Cookies


Mmmm. Chocolate crinkle cookies are one of my favorite baked treats. They go wonderfully with a hot cup of coffee on a cool, drizzly day like today. And they’re great to share with friends too! Here’s my recipe:

CHOCOLATE CRINKLE COOKIES

½ cup vegetable oil
4 (1 oz.) unsweetened chocolate squares, melted and cooled slightly
2 cups granulated sugar
4 large eggs
2 tsp. vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp. baking powder
¼ tsp. salt
1 cup powdered sugar

Blend oil, melted chocolate and sugar together. Add eggs and vanilla, mixing well after each. Stir in flour, baking powder and salt. Make into dough balls (about two teaspoons each) and chill in the refrigerator several hours or overnight. Right before baking, heat oven to 350 degrees. Dip dough balls into powdered sugar until they are well-dusted. Place 3 inches apart on lightly greased cookie sheet. Bake 10-12 minutes. They will appear poofy and crinkly when ready to remove from oven.

The cookies freeze very well. Just remove them from the freezer and thaw at room temperature 1-2 hours before serving.

Happy baking!
~Becky

Monday, November 28, 2011

Marie Callender's Style Lemon Cream Cheese Pie


I made a lemon cream cheese pie recently for dessert for a dinner party and it went over really well. I used a recipe I found in one of Todd Wilbur’s “Super Secret” copycat cookbooks (I love all of his cookbooks, by the way, and highly recommend them!). This is a copycat version of Marie Callender’s lemon cream cheese pie (a favorite of mine when I used to live in California, where the restaurant chain is quite popular!). I did do a few things differently from Todd Wilbur’s recipe. I added extra sugar (I thought the lemon filling was too sour if I went by the cookbook) and twice as much lemon juice (otherwise, I didn’t hardly taste enough lemon). I also used my own graham cracker crust recipe, and I garnished the pie with whipped cream. Here’s the recipe:

Crust:
1 1/4 cups graham cracker crumbs
1/ 3 cup unsalted butter, melted
3 T. light brown sugar
Dash salt

Cream cheese filling:
1 (8 oz.) pkg. cream cheese, softened
¼ cup granulated sugar
½ tsp. vanilla
1 large egg

Lemon filling:
¾ cup granulated sugar
2 T. cornstarch (heaping)
Dash salt
1 cup filtered water
2 large egg yolks
4 T. lemon juice
1 T. butter

Whipped cream topping:
1 cup heavy cream
2 T. powdered sugar
½ tsp. vanilla
Optional: 1 packet whipped cream stabilizer

Combine the crust ingredients together and pat into an 8-inch pie plate. Refrigerate until ready to fill. Next, prepare the cream cheese filling layer. Beat the cream cheese and granulated sugar together until smooth. Add the vanilla and egg, and mix until fluffy. Pour the filling into the crust and bake in a preheated 350 degree oven for 30 to 35 minutes (filling should be set and will appear “poofy.”). Remove pie from oven. Let it set for about 10-15 minutes at room temperature. While it is setting, it will “poof down” a bit. During this time, make the lemon filling.

Prepare the lemon filling by mixing together the first four lemon filling ingredients together in a small saucepan. Cook over a low heat and bring to a simmer, stirring continuously. It will thicken up slightly. After it does, whisk in egg yolks, lemon juice and butter. Continue cooking and stirring until the mixture simmers again. Pour the filling over cream cheese filling and refrigerate several hours until cold and set. Finally, beat the four whipped cream topping ingredients together, and pipe onto top of pie (or just spread on top). Refrigerate until serving. This recipe can be made up until one day in advance.

Enjoy!
~Becky

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Pecan Pie Tartlets


Tomorrow’s Thanksgiving! Yippee! It’s one of my favorite days of the year. Like a lot of people, I am busy baking all day today. We’ve got 26 people coming to dinner, which means by my dessert-to-guest ratio, I need about 10 kinds of dessert! One of the desserts I made is pecan tartlets. I just pulled them out of the oven.

The recipe I use for pecan tartlets comes from King Arthur Flour. I follow it pretty closely, only rather than use a hamburger bun pan or a mini muffin tin as the recipe suggested, I like to use either my Nordic Ware Tartlet pan (which I’ve mentioned in many different blog posts over the past year) or individual-sized tartlet tins.

What I like about this recipe is that is uses Lyle’s Golden Syrup, instead of the more traditional corn syrup. This adds a lot of flavor.

Here’s the recipe, in case you’d like to try it:

PECAN PIE TARTLETTES

Crust:
2 ¼ cups all purpose flour
1 tsp. salt
5 T. unsalted butter
2/3 cup Crisco or other shortening, chilled in freezer
5-6 T. cold water

Sift flour and salt into a mixing bowl. Using your fingers or a pastry blender, cut in shortening until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Sprinkle water on top of flour mixture, one tablespoon at a time. After each sprinkling of water, gently mix in the water drops with some of the dry mixture. After 5 tablespoons of water has been sprinkled in, the mixture should hold together in a ball. If it doesn't, sprinkle an additional tablespoon of water onto the dough. Roll out and press into tartlet pans. Refrigerate until ready to fill.

Filling:
6 large eggs
1 ½ cups Lyle’s Golden Syrup (a sugar cane syrup made in the U.K., but available in many specialty food stores in the U.S. and online from Amazon.com)
2 cups granulated sugar
6 T. melted butter
1 tsp. salt
2 tsp. vanilla extract
3 cups unsalted, raw pecans, slightly chopped

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. In a medium-sized bowl, beat the eggs, syrup, sugar, butter, salt and vanilla together. Spoon around 1/8 cup of filling into each tartlet cavity. Sprinkle pecans over the filling, dividing them evenly. Bake in preheated oven for 15 minutes. Then reduce the oven temperature to 300 degrees and bake for another 15-20 minutes (until filling is set). Remove from pans and cool on rack before serving. Makes 36-48 tartlets.

Happy baking…and eating!
~Becky

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Plan a Soup Party!


With the cold fall/winter weather upon us, one of my favorite ways is to entertain is with a soup party. It’s easy, tasty, and especially scrumptious when the wind is howling or there’s snow on the ground.

Now, a “soup party” can mean a lot of different things to different people. For many, it just means a simple dinner party where a main dish soup, or several types of soup, is the main course. To me, a “soup party” is a type of potluck get-together where guests bring their favorite homemade soup.

Usually the host provides 1-2 main dish soups, along with some accompaniments like fresh yeast bread and/or cornbread (either homemade or from the bakery), a tossed green salad and maybe a “comfort” dessert like bread pudding or apple crisp. Then guests (usually one batch of soup per family/couple) can each bring a batch of their own favorite soup, or perhaps additional menu items like the desserts and wine or other beverages. I like to ask guests to make labels identifying their soups, so everyone knows what type of soup they’re sampling.

During the meal, provide soup mugs or bowls for guests to sample the different soups—kind of like what you might do at a soup and salad bar. You can also provide “to go” containers and lids for guests to take favorite soups home with them.

To add to the ambiance, you might want to place a large basket of freshly-baked bread at the center of your table(s), have mulled, spiced apple cider warming on the stovetop or in a crockpot, and light your fireplace if you have one—just to add to the cozy, relaxed mood of the get-together.

Here are five of my favorite soup recipes. When I host a soup party, I will usually pick a couple of these to make.

1. Copycat Applebee’s Tomato Basil Soup
This recipe came from Todd Wilbur’s cookbook, Top Secret Recipes 3. It is my all-time favorite soup recipe:

1 tsp. extra virgin olive oil
1 tsp. minced garlic
½ cup minced white onion
2 (28-oz.) cans crushed tomatoes
3 cups chicken broth
¾ cup heavy cream
1/3 cup minced fresh basil
1/3 cup granulated sugar
2 tsp. minced fresh parsley
¼ tsp. dried oregano
¼ tsp. salt
¼ tsp. ground black pepper

Garnish:
Garlic butter or other seasoned croutons
Freshly-grated Parmesan cheese

Heat the teaspoon of olive oil in a large saucepan over medium heat and then add the onion and garlic. Saute for about a minute and then add the crushed tomatoes and chicken broth. Bring mixture to a boil, and then reduce heat and simmer for 20 minutes. Turn off the heat and let mixture cool, uncovered, for 30 minutes or so.

Pour approximately half of the tomato mixture into a blender. Put the lid on the blender and hold it down with a dish towel. (The mixture might still be hot and you don’t want the lid of the blender coming off.) Blend on a high speed for about a minute; then pour the mixture into a large bowl or pitcher. Then pour the remaining unblended soup mixture into the blender and blend on high speed for about a minute.

Pour all the pureed tomato mixture back into the saucepan, and then add the remaining ingredients. Bring the soup back to a bubble, and then reduce heat and simmer for 20 minutes. Ladle soup into bowls, and garnish each with croutons and Parmesan cheese.

2. Potato Cheese Soup

8 cups peeled and diced Russet potatoes
3 large white or yellow onions, peeled and died
8 stalks celery, sliced thinly
2 tsp. salt
8 cups (64 oz.) water
4 cups half and half
6 T. butter
1 cup shredded sharp Cheddar cheese
Optional: Fresh chopped fresh parsley for garnish

Put potatoes, onions, celery, salt and water in stock pot over medium-high heat and bring to a boil. Reduce to low and simmer until vegetables are tender, about 15-20 minutes. Turn off heat and let it cool about 15 minutes. Then put mixture in blender or food processor and chop until chunky. Return mixture to stockpot and add the half-and-half, butter and cheese. Stir over low heat, until cheese is melted. Serve with parsley, if desired.

3. Tortilla Soup

2 T. oil
1 medium sized yellow onion, diced
1 (4 oz.) can seeded and chopped green chilies
1 tsp. minced garlic
1 (14 ½ oz.) can tomatoes, chopped
2 (10 ½ oz.) cans chicken broth
1 ½ cups water
1 ½ cups tomato juice
1 tsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. chili powder
1 tsp. salt
¼ tsp. black pepper
2 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
1 T. steak sauce
1 T. lime juice

Saute onions, chilies and garlic in oil. Add remaining ingredients and simmer for 1 hour. Serve hot with tortilla chips, grated Monterey Jack or Cheddar Cheese, and diced fresh cilantro.

4. Crock Pot Chicken Noodle Soup

6 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, uncooked
2 quarts filtered water
10-12 celery stalks (with leaves), cut into ¼-inch slices (about 3 cups)
2 lb. bag of fresh carrots, peeled and cut into ¼-inch slices
1 T. salt
1 ½ tsp. granulated sugar
½ to 1 tsp. (depending on taste) ground black pepper
8 chicken bouillon cubes or 1 T. ground chicken bouillon
3 cups uncooked thin egg noodles

Put all ingredients in 6 ½ to 7 quart slow cooker. Cook on low for 8 to 10 hours. During last 30 minutes of cooking time, put uncooked noodles in soup in crocker; this will cook the noodles. Makes about 16 large servings of soup.

5. Crock Pot Vegetable Beef Soup

1 pound boneless beef ribs or shanks
8 cups (64 oz.) filtered water
1 (14 ½ oz.) can tomatoes, broken up
4 carrots, peeled and sliced
2 medium yellow onions, diced
5 celery stalks, with tops, sliced
2 yellow neck squash, sliced
2 cups fresh green green beans, cut into 1-inch pieces
5 medium potatoes, sliced and diced
½ cup frozen corn kernels
1 ½ tsp. salt
1 tsp. ground black pepper
2 tsp. dried parsley
7 beef bouillon cubes

Put all ingredients in 1 ½ to 5 quart slow cooker. Cover and cook on low for 12 to 24 hours. Before serving, break up beef into small, bite-size pieces.

Happy soup making!
~Becky

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Tex Mex Chicken Salad


When I used to live in California, one of my favorite fast-food restaurants was El Pollo Loco. They make a grilled chicken tossed salad that is absolutely wonderful. It features a delicous creamy cilantro salad dressing. Recently, I came across a copycat version of this salad dressing recipe in Todd Wilbur’s book, Top Secret Recipes Unlocked. I’ve used that recipe—with a few slight modifications—to help create a TexMex chicken salad that is very similar to the salad served at El Pollo Loco. The recipe is below. I’ve served it as a main dish for luncheons, and it always goes over well.

TEX MEX CHICKEN SALAD

½ head iceberg lettuce
½ bunch leaf lettuce
1 cup canned sweet corn
1 cup canned black beans
1 cup fresh salsa or pico de gallo
½ cup cotija cheese, crumbled
1 (3.5 oz.) pkg. tortilla strips salad toppings
4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, marinated in a spicy herb marinade, grilled and cut into 1-inch pieces
Creamy cilantro salad dressing (see recipe below)

First, marinate the chicken, and after several hours, grill it and slice it into pieces. (Just about any spicy marinade will do; I often marinate the chicken using McCormick's "Mexican Fiesta" or “Zesty Herb” marinade packets.) Refrigerate the cooked chicken pieces until you’re ready to toss the salad.

Next, make the salad dressing, and chill that until you’re ready to pour it on the salad.

No more than 30 minutes before serving, combine the lettuce, corn, beans and pico de gallo in a large salad bowl. Add the cheese, tortilla strips and chicken breasts and stir together. Just before serving, add the salad dressing and stir just until most of the salad ingredients are moistened. Serve immediately. Makes 5-6 main entrée-sized portions.

CREAMY CILANTO SALAD DRESSING

1 cup mayonaise
½ cup whole milk
¼ cup fresh cilantro, minced finely
2 tsp. lime juice
1 tsp. granulated sugar
1 tsp. crushed garlic
¼ tsp. onion powder
½ tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. cayenne pepper
1/8 tsp. black peper
¼ tsp. ground cumin

Whisk all of the ingredients together until smooth in a quart-sized bowl or salad dressing bottle. Chill in refrigerator at least 30 minutes before serving.

Happy salad making!
~Becky

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Product Recommendation: Bronze Turkey Placecard Holders for Thanksgiving


Looking for something cute to dress up your Thanksgiving table this year? I recommend these antique bronze placecard holders from Tag. They come in packs of four, for $19.95 a package, with free shipping—if you buy them from Amazon.com. Their service is very fast; I got my placecard holders in a week’s time. So if you order this week, you’re sure to get them by Thanksgiving.

Each placecard holder is 3.13” high by 2.38” in width. These are very sturdy placecard holders, and are sure to last for many years to come. I’ve bought other Thanksgiving placecard holders in years past that were quite cute as well, but they just didn’t hold up and pieces started falling off or breaking. But these placecard holders are far more sturdy. Not only that, I like the antique bronze finish, which is a nice accent to most fall table settings. Also, I think the turkeys are super adorable, but not too “cutesy” if you’re having a more formal table setting.

Each box of four placecard holders comes with eight blank cards. These are your standard rectangular white placecard holders. I decided to get a little fancier, so I went to Hobby Lobby (one of my favorite stores of all time!) and bought some cream colored card stock and cut those out into rectangular shapes. The I wrote guests’ names on the cards using brown ink and my calligraphy pen. Next, I spray-mounted those onto larger rectangles, which I cut out of very sparkly, rust-colored card stock (which will match my table cloth and napkins quite well).

Not only are these placecard holders decorative, they are also very functional. We are having 25 people over for Thanksgiving this year. With large sit-down dinners like this, I like to decide ahead of time where everyone should sit—rather than just try to figure out after everyone arrives and dinner’s ready (and cooling down fast!) where everyone should sit. (Have you ever gone with a large group to a restaurant? Trying to figure out where everyone should sit can be a real challenge!) I like figuring dinner party seating in advance. It saves a lot of time, and you can put in some thought to ensuring people are sitting next to other guests they will enjoy talking with.

Well, that’s all for now. Just thought I’d recommend a nice product!

~Becky

Monday, November 7, 2011

Pumpkin Cranberry Bread for Thanksgiving



Thanksgiving is just 2 ½ weeks away! It’s one of my favorite times of the year. I’m already busy doing advance prep work for our Thanksgiving meal. I just made a batch of pumpkin cranberry bread, and I froze it. It’s delicious with a Thanksgiving meal—and it freezes wonderfully, and is makes a very moist bread. I just pull the loaves out of the freezer the day before Thanksgiving and let them thaw in the refrigerator overnight. No one would ever guess they were made several weeks in advance and frozen.

PUMPKIN CRANBERRY BREAD

2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon pumpkin pie spice
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs
2 cups granulated sugar
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 (15 oz.) can solid pack pumpkin
1 ½ cup fresh cranberries, chopped

In large bowl, combine flour, pumpkin pie spice, baking soda and salt. In small mixer bowl, beat eggs; beat in sugar, oil and pumpkin. Pour pumpkin mixture into dry ingredients; stir just until moistened. Stir in cranberries. Spoon batter into 2 greased and floured 8 x 4 inch loaf pans. (I like to use parchment paper at the bottom of the pans to prevent sticking.) Bake in preheated 350 degrees oven for 60 minutes or until wooden pick comes out clean. Cool for 10 minutes; remove from pans. Makes 2 regular sized, or 5 miniature sized loaves.

Happy baking!
~Becky

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Traditional--and Favorite--Thanksgiving Desserts


With Thanksgiving just a few weeks away, I have been busy planning out my menu and table decorations.

In one sense, the menu is pretty standard. Probably like most people, I make many of the same dishes for Thanksgiving year after year. They are traditional family—and guest—favorites.

In particular, there are four desserts I like to make every year for Thanksgiving. You might like them too. Here are the recipes:


PUMPKIN STREUSEL PIE

1 unbaked (9-inch) pie shell
1 (15 oz.) can pumpkin
1 (15 oz.) can sweetened condensed milk
1 large egg
¼ tsp. salt
½ tsp. ground nutmeg
½ tsp. ground ginger
1/8 tsp. ground cloves
1 tsp. ground cinnamon

Topping:
½ cup brown sugar, packed
½ cup all purpose flour
¼ cup unsalted butter, cold
½ cup chopped pecans

Combine pumpkin, condensed milk, egg, salt, nutmeg, ginger, cloves and cinnamon. Blend well. Pour into pie shell and bake at 375 degrees for 50 minutes. While that is cooking, make topping. Using a pastry blender or your fingers, mix flour, brown sugar and butter together until crumbling. Mix in pecans. After removing pie from oven, spread topping on top. Increase oven temperature to 450 degrees. Return pie to oven and bake for an additional 10-15 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Chill pie in refrigerator at least 1-2 hours before serving. If desired, serve with whipped cream.


SWEET POTATO PIE

1 unbaked (9-inch) pie shell
2 cups freshly cooked and mashed sweet potatoes or yams
3 T. unsalted butter, very soft
1 cup dark brown sugar, firmly packed
1/3 cup granulated sugar
3 large eggs
2 tsp. vanilla extract
2 tsp. ground cinnamon
½ tsp. ground nutmeg
1 tsp. grated orange peel
1 ½ cups half-and-half

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Blend sweet potatoes and sugars together; add eggs and beat until well-combined. Stir in vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg, orange peel and half-and-half. Blend thoroughly. Pour into pie crust. Bake for 50 to 60 minutes, or until filling is set and a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool, and serve with whipped cream.


CHOCOLATE KAHLUA CHEESECAKE

2 cups Oreo crumbs (crush cookies with the white filling)
1/3 cup unsalted butter, melted
1 1/2 cups semisweet chocolate chips
1/3 cup Kahlua
2 T. unsalted butter
2 (8-ounce) packages cream cheese, softened
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1/8 tsp. salt
2 large eggs
1 cup sour cream
1 pint heavy whipping cream
1 tsp. vanilla
1/8 cup confectioner’s sugar
Optional: chocolate-covered espresso beans, chocolate leaves or chocolate leaves for garnish

Preheat oven to 325°F (160°C).

In a bowl combine chocolate wafer crumbs and melted butter, and press into bottom and about 1-inch up the sides of 9-inch springform pan. Refrigerate until time to fill.

In a small saucepan over medium heat, melt semi-sweet chocolate chips with 2 T. butter. Add Kahlua and stir over heat just until mixture is melted and blended together. Remove from stovetop and set aside to cool slightly.

In a medium-sized mixing bowl, beat cream cheese, sugar and salt until smooth and fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each. Blend in sour cream. Pour in cooled chocolate mixture and blend well. Spoon into chilled cookie crust. Bake for 50-60 minutes, or until filling is set. Remove from the oven and let stand at room temperature for 1 hour. Then refrigerate for 3 hours or overnight.

To garnish, whip cream and powdered sugar to stiff peaks. Add vanilla. Spread whipped cream on cake and garnish with chocolate-covered espresso beans, chocolate leaves or chocolate leaves.


WHITE CHOCOLATE CHERRY CHEESECAKE

Crust:
2 cups graham cracker crumbs
¼ cup granulated sugar
1 T. unsalted butter, melted

Filling:
3 (8 oz.) pkgs. cream cheese, softened
½ cup granulated sugar
1 tsp. vanilla extract
3 eggs
½ lb. white chocolate, melted

Topping:
1 can cherry pie filling
1 ½ cups heavy whipping cream
1 tsp. vanilla extract
¼ cup powdered sugar
1 envelope “Whip-It” whipped cream stabilizer

First make the crust. Combine the three crust ingredients together and press on the bottom and 2-3 inches up the sides of a 9-inch springform pan. Refrigerate at least 30 minutes, or until filling is ready.

To prepare filling, combine cream cheese, sugar and vanilla, mixing until well blended. Add eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Blend in white chocolate; mix well. Pour over crust. Bake at 350 degrees F, for 45-50 minutes, or until center is set. Refrigerate several hours or overnight.

When ready to add topping and garnish the cake, remove the cake from the springform pan. Beat whipping cream, vanilla, powdered sugar and whipped cream stabilizer together. Spoon cherry pie filling into top center of cake, leaving a 1 ½ to 2 inch border around cake to pipe whipping cream. Spoon whipped cream into decorator bag and pipe cream around top edge of cake. Refrigerate until ready to serve. With whipped cream stabilizer, cake can be garnished 24 hours in advance of serving. Makes 10-12 servings.

Happy dessert making!
~Becky

Monday, October 31, 2011

Warm Apple Pie Pockets


I just recently bought a “Pocket Pie” cutter from Williams Sonoma. What a fun “toy” for people like me who like to entertain! This cutter makes personal-sized apple pies, that are just right for one person. Best of all, you can make up a batch of these ahead of time and freeze them until you want to make them. They’re fairly easy to make. Here’s what you need to do.

Make up a batch of your favorite pie crust (enough for a double, top and bottom crust). In this case, I recommend a crust recipe made with 100 percent shortening (rather than with butter) so that it is not too crumbly. This will make it easier to handle.

Here’s my recommended recipe:

SUPER EASY-TO-HANDLE PIE CRUST

2 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp. salt
2/3 cup Crisco or other shortening (There are many organic shortenings on the market, which work great in pie crusts!)
4 ½ to 5 T. cold water

Sift flour and salt into a mixing bowl. Using your fingers or a pastry blender, cut in shortening until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Sprinkle water on top of flour mixture, 1 tablespoon at a time. After each sprinkling of water, gently mix in the water drops with some of the dry mixture. After 4 ½ tablespoons of water has been sprinkled in, the mixture should hold together in a ball. If it doesn't, sprinkle 1-2 teaspoons of additional water onto the dough. Shape dough into two equal-sized balls. Roll out onto a floured surface and cut into shapes using the apple pie cutter.


Place apple pie shapes on trays and either refrigerate or freeze while you prepare the filling.

APPLE PIE FILLING

5 large golden delicious apples
1/3 cup light brown sugar, firmly packed
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/8 tsp. nutmeg
2 heaping tablespoons all purpose flour
2 T. unsalted butter, softened

For the filling, peel and thinly slice 5 large golden delicious apples. Microwave for 5 minutes to make them soft. Add the remaining ingredients, and stir just until ingredients are evenly distributed.


Press one apple pie crust cut-out onto each side of the pocket pie maker. Spoon about 2-3 heaping tablespoons of apple pie filling onto one crust. (For a shortcut, you can use canned apple pie or peach pie filling.) Whisk together one egg and 1 T. cold water. Brush a little of the egg and water mixture on the border of one apple pie crust. Press the two sides of the apple pie cutter together to seal. To bake, place pocket pies onto baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Bake in 375 degree oven for 25-30 minutes.

If desired, brush crust with milk or some of the egg and water mixture and sprinkle with granulated sugar before baking.

These can be frozen (wrapped individually with plastic wrap) for up to 1-2 months. Thaw 1-2 hours at room temperature before baking.

Happy pie baking!
~Becky

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Crock pot chili


We had a house-full of teenagers and their parents over last night. My oldest son’s 18th birthday is coming up, and we wanted to have some of his friends and their families over for dinner to celebrate this milestone. And with the weather cooling off like it has (It’s actually been chilly in Dallas, and I’m not complaining that’s for sure!), the obvious choice for what to feed everyone was crockpot chili.
I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like chili. Top it with shredded cheese, sour cream and Fritoes and that’s a scrumptious meal…and so easy to prepare! This chili cooks all day in the crockpot all day, and fills your home with the smells of a TexMex restaurant. Mmmmm! You can assemble the chili the day before and keep it in the refrigerator up until you start it cooking. That adds to the ease of meal prep. Here’s the recipe:

CROCK POT CHILI

3 lbs. lean ground beef
4 large yellow onions, diced
4 large green bell peppers, diced
3 tsp. crushed garlic
4 28-oz. cans whole tomatoes with the juice, crsuehd
2 cans light red kidney beans, drained
2 cans dark red kidney beans, drained
3-4 T. chili powder
2-3 tsp. cumin
2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. black pepper

Brown ground beef, onion, green pepper and garlic together in skillet. Drain off grease. Transfer to a 7-8 quart crock pot. Add the remaininig ingredients and stir to blend. Cook over low heat for 8 to 10 hours.

Enjoy the chili!
~Becky

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Becky's Bruscetta


Haven't posted in a while, but here's one to make up for lost time. This is for bruscetta, which we had last night. It's a simple appetizer, and one of my favorites....especially with a pasta dinner!

Favorite Bruscetta

1 loaf (3 to 4 inches in diameter) crusty Italian bread
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
6 plum tomatoes, peeled and chopped
3 cloves fresh garlic, finely chopped
1 large yellow onion, finely chopped
1/4 cup fresh basil, diced
1/4 cup fresh parsley, diced
1/2 tsp. each salt and pepper
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, ideally freshly grated

Preheat oven broiler to 500 degrees F. Cut loaf of bread into 1/2-inch slices. Mix tomatoes, garlic, onion, basil, parsley, salt and pepper together in small bowl and set aside. Spray cookie sheet with canola oil and arrange bread slices on sheet. Drizzle olive oil on top of bread. Place cookie sheet in broiler and bake several minutes, just until bread slices are slightly toasted and golden brown around edges. Remove, and top with tomato mixture and grated Parmesan. Serve immediately. Makes enough for about 8-10 people.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Favorite Italian Salads


Admittedly, I post a lot of dessert recipes on this blog. But truth be told, as much as I like making desserts, I often find salads a whole lot more satisfying (and amazingly, my clothes are still likely to fit me after making them!). Here are three of my favorite salads, all with an Italian flavor.


CAESAR SALAD WITH GRILLED CHICKEN

1 bunch Romaine lettuce, washed and torn into bite-sized pieces
½ bag garlic and butter flavor croutons
½ cup Parmesan cheese, freshly grated

4 boneless skinless chicken breasts, grilled and sliced into strips (I marinate the breasts overnight in Grill Mates’ Zesty Herb Marinade, and then grill the chicken either on an outdoor or indoor electric grill)

Dressing:
1 ½ to 2 tsp. minced garlic (depending on taste)
1/3 cup Parmesan cheese, freshly grated
2 T. Dijon mustard
2 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
1 ½ tsp. granulated sugar
1/3 cup lemon juice
2/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 T. fresh parsley, minced

Combine all the dressing ingredients together and refrigerate at least 1 hour. In large bowl, place the lettuce, croutons and Parmesan cheese. Add dressing and toss. Top with freshly-grilled chicken pieces and serve.


GRILLED ANTIPASTO SALAD

2 red bell peppers, seeded and quartered
2 green bell peppers, seeded and quartered
2 cups oil and vinegar salad dressing
4 large garlic cloves, sliced
1 (16 oz.) container bocconcini (mozzarella balls), drained
1 cup pimento-stuffed green olives, drained
16 slices sourdough bread, lightly toasted

Coat grill rack with nonstick cooking spray. Preheat grill to high (400 to 450 degrees). Place bell peppers in a large bowl. Add salad dressing, turning to coat. Remove peppers from dressing; reserve dressing. Place peppers on grill. Grill 6-7 minutes per side or until softened and lightly charred (without overcooking!). Transfter peppers to a cutting board, and let them cool. Meanwhile, ad garlic, mozzarella balls and lives to reserved dressing; toss to coat. Set aside. Cut peppers into 1-inch pieces. Add to bowl; season with salt and pepper to taste, and toss to combine. Cover and refrigerate at least 8 hours. Place toasted bread slices on a serving dish. Spoon antipasto salad on the bread and serve.


GREEN PEPPER TOMATO SALAD

2 green bell peppers, sliced thinly
3 large tomatoes (beef steak is best, preferably ripened on-the-vine)
1 large Spanish onion, sliced thinly
1 cup pitted black olives, sliced in thirds

Dressing:
¼ cup canola or olive oil
¼ cup white or wine vinegar
1 T. oregano
1 tsp. salt
¼ tsp. black pepper

Stir bell peper, tomato, onion and olive slices together. Mix dressing ingredients together and stir into vegetables. For best flavor, chill 1-2 hours before serving.