Thursday, August 28, 2014

Blueberry Oat Bars (just like Starbucks used to serve!)

One of my favorite treats that I used to find at Starbucks a few years ago (until they discontinued them…boo, hoo!) was their blueberry oat bars. These were absolutely delicious…especially with a cup of coffee on a cool day. Yum!

Once Starbucks stopped selling blueberry oat bars, I had to come up with a recipe of my own…and I did. The recipe is below. I have found these bars are nice to serve at “ladies gatherings” like tea parties. If your neighbor drops by to chat one morning  and you’re brewing coffee and want something to go with your caffeine, these bars are a perfect accompaniment.  But even a crowd of teenage guys enjoy these too! They’re great for breakfast…and actually far more nutritional than toaster pastries and a lot of cereals. These bars can be baked ahead of time and frozen for 1-2 months; just remove them out of the freezer and let them thaw at room temperature for about an hour before serving.


4 cups blueberries (fresh or frozen)
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup orange juice
1/3 cup cornstarch

Place first three filling ingredients in a saucepan. Heat on a medium high heat on the stove. Bring to a boil. Then reduce heat to low and let simmer for about 10 minutes (until berries are soft). Whisk in cornstarch and stir over low heat for about 2 more minutes more , until filling is thickened. Remove from heat. Put some plastic wrap on top of the filling to prevent a skin from forming. Set out at room temperature for about an hour to cool.

2 cups uncooked oatmeal, quick or old-fashioned
1 cup flour, all-purpose or unbleached
1 cup dark brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 cup butter, cold

Mix all crust/topping ingredients except butter together in a large bowl. Using your fingers, work in the butter until crumbly.  Spread about half of the mixture into the bottom of a lightly buttered 9 x 13 inch pan. Spoon the blueberry filling on top. Sprinkle the other half of the crust/topping mixture on top of filling.

Bake in a 350 degrees F oven for about 35 to 40 minutes, until crust is lightly browned and filling is starting to bubble. Remove from oven and cool on a rack for 1-2 hours before cutting into bars.




Sunday, August 17, 2014

Warm Blackberry Crisp

One of my favorite desserts to serve to company is so easy….blackberry crisp. You can make it ahead of time and refrigerate it until ready to bake. I will put the crisp in the oven to bake while we’re eating the main meal. When it’s time to eat dessert, the crisp will be done baking and cooling a bit…but it’ll still be warm. Top the crisp with vanilla ice cream and you have a scrumptious dessert!

Here’s the recipe:

3 cups fresh blackberries
4 T. granulated sugar
1 T. lemon juice
1 cup all-purpose or unbleached white flour
1 cup oats (quick or old fashioned)
½ tsp. cinnamon
1/8 tsp. nutmeg
¾ cup brown sugar
¾ cup butter

Toss the first three ingredients together and set aside. In another bowl, combine the rest of the ingredients together (flour, oats, cinnamon, nutmeg, brown sugar and butter) until crumbly. Lightly butter a 1 ½ quart casserole dish. Press half of the crumb mixture on the bottom. Cover that with the berry mixture. Top that with the other half of the crumb mixture. Bake in a 350 degree oven for about 30 to 35 minutes—until fruit is bubbly and topping is slightly browned. Remove from oven. Let rest at room temperature about 10 minutes before serving.


Tuesday, August 12, 2014

10 Ideas for Hosting a Fun Girls' Night at Home

No matter how much you love your husband and kids, sometimes you just need to some female time with your friends. There’s just something super-therapeutic about hanging out with your gal pals! A lot of times that may just mean going shopping or out to dinner, happy hour or the movies. But every now and then you might want to do something different. Why not host your own girls’ night in your own home?

Over the years I have planned a lot of such events for my female friends. They’ve always been a lot of fun, and sometimes they’re more relaxing than fighting the traffic and crowds to go to busy restaurants and shopping malls. If you divide up costs between your friends, it can actually be a less expensive way to spend time together.

Here are my ideas for 10 super-fun gals’ nights you can host in your own home:

1. Spa Night
Most every gal loves getting their nails done or a facial at a fancy spa. But that can get really expensive fast! A lot of my friends have confessed to me that they just can’t afford going to a spa. As an alternative, why not host your own spa treatment at home? There are a lot of different spa treatments you can do at home. Buy a selection of nail polish and pumice boards and give yourselves pedicures and manicures, or buy some acrylic nail kits and give yourselves your own acrylic nails.

I have a friend who sells makeup for Mary Kay and she came over once for a gals’ night and gave everyone makeovers and facials.

Another time I went out to store and bought seven different home facial single-use packets (each a different scent, in a different  color) to use at a gals’ afternoon. We got our masks on and took pictures together with our colorful faces. Afterwards we had wine and cheese while soaking  in our outdoor hot tub. It was a fun gals-only afternoon!
There are also hundreds of different recipes online for making concoctions for home facials., hand wraps and foot soaks. Those are fun too.

For added enjoyment, if you’ve got a home foot massager, foot soaker or melted hand waxer, those can be fun to bring out at home spa parties too.

If you want to do it up right, have some healthy snacks and beverages at your spa party, and play some relaxing “spa music” in the background.
2. Do-Your-Own Pizza Party

Why not invite your gal friends over for homemade personal pizzas? Buy some mini Boboli crusts or make your own mini pizza crusts up ahead of time and have the sauce, cheeses and various toppings on hand and have your guests make their own personal pizzas. Be sure to have some fancy drinks to go with your pizza.

3. Game/Card Night

Back in the day, women got together for bridge parties.  The ladies just loved playing cards while chatting and snacking on delicious foods.  You may not be in to bridge, but there are a whole lot of other card games you can play with your gal friends. Set up a few tables, pull out the cards and choose a card game to play with your friends. My favorites are pinochle, hearts, spades and canasta. Print up the rules on 8 ½ by 11” sheets of paper and set them out at each place setting. None of these card games are hard to learn.  Of course, there are also some fun group board games like Mexican Train and Balderdash that are enjoyable to play with a group of close friends.

You could combine your game night with potluck dinner. Have each guest bring a dish to pass. When you’re done eating dinner, you can get started on your game.
4. All-girls murder mystery party

I’ve hosted two murder mystery parties at my house for the gals and they have been a blast! You can make it a really big party and spend a lot of money decorating to the theme and even buying prizes for best actor and best costume. Your guests stay in character all night and do their own “improv” acting. Or, you can just sit around the dinner table with your guests and read the lines for your characters. In that case, the murder mystery event is almost like playing a board game. Either way, you’re sure to have a very memorable evening! There are a lot of online companies that sell murder mystery party kits. The companies below all have murder mystery kits especially designed for gals’ get-togethers:

5. Book Club Night

I love to read. I especially love talking with friends about what I’ve learned in the various books I’m reading. Usually I’m reading nonfiction, or historical fiction.  A fun idea for a girls’ night, admittedly in a rather erudite fashion, is to host a book club night. Now it doesn’t have to be a nonfiction book Having your gal pals over to talk about the latest novel you’ve all read can be fun. But so can a nonfiction book. It might be on a parenting topic (if you’re all females) or one on the sandwich generation if you all have elderly parents you’re concerned about. Or maybe there’s a topic in the news that you’re all interested in. For instance, I have a lot of friends who are interested in nutrition, so we all enjoy talking about the books we’ve read on topics like GMO agriculture and nutritional remedies for health problems. Choose a book about a month before your book club night. That’ll give your guests time to each buy a copy and read the book. As the host, come up with a list of open-ended questions to ask your guests during the party, to try to get the conversations going. Be sure to have refreshments on hand. (If your guests are shy, you may need to buy some wine to serve!)

6. Movie Night

Probably one of the more common types of at-home girls’ nights would be to watch a movie together. But even though it’s a common way for females to spend time together, it’s still worth mentioning here. Movie nights can be loads of fun. Survey your friends and see if there’s a newly-released DVD they’re all waiting to see. I actually have a huge collection of movies to watch with friends—even movies my mom liked back in the 70s and 80s that are classics. Your local Family Video may not carry a lot of 80s movies, but I have found a lot on and at garage sales for fairly cheap. Now when I have friends over, there’s usually at least a couple movies in my collection (many of them chick flicks, but not all of them are!) they have never heard of before, but end up liking.

Tell your friends to come in comfy clothes—like sweat pants—and have some lap blankets to pass out to your friends so you can all relax and be comfortable. It goes without saying making a huge bowl of popcorn and perhaps some mixed drinks only adds to the fun!

7. Craft Night

Just about everyone I know has a craft they like to do. One friend is an expert scrap booker. Another crochets scarves all the time. Another does flower arranging. I make homemade soap and do beading. Something I’ve done a lot with my friends is to host craft parties. For instance, I’ll organize soap making parties. Usually we’ll make three batches of soap at a party. I’ll do the first batch to demonstrate the process. My friends will just watch. After that batch is done, then my guests take turns helping to make soap for the second and third batches. Once the soap is done, we divide the soap up among everyone to take home—and each person chips in some cash to pay for supplies. I’ve done the same thing with beading parties, where guests all make bracelets and necklaces to take home. Other times I’ve invited a friend over who’s the expert and maybe she teaches everyone present how to make napkin rings out of silk flowers or whatever.

Craft parties are a great way to learn a new skill and be productive, and still relax and talk with your friends. This is something, though, that can get expensive. You can either give each of your guests a list of supplies that they need to buy ahead of time to make their own craft project at your house. Or, you, as the host, can buy all the supplies and then figure out what each guest needs to pay for her share.
7. White Elephant Gift Exchange

Most people probably have items at home that are unused and unwanted. You know…the extra Gevalia coffee pot you got in the mail a couple years ago that sits unopened in your attic….the bagel-shaped mug you bought while in New York….the rhinestone watch you impulsively bought at the department store during the after-Christmas sale, but you got it home and thought it was way too gaudy?!! Everyone has items like these….that they would like to get rid of. One way to accomplish this is to host a white elephant party.

Ask each of your guests to bring one unused, but interesting—even funny or unique—item that’s been wrapped up. If your guests don’t have such an item at home already, they might go shopping for one. If you’ve got a Spencer’s Gifts in town, they are a great source of humorous white elephant gifts.

Usually at these kinds of parties, it’s part of a dinner. I like to make it a potluck. Use paper plates. Number the bottom of each paper plate. As your guests arrive, have them set their wrapped guests on a table in your home. Before you set the gift on the table, attach a number sticker to the gift. Do not allow your guests to look at the bottom of your plates until after dinner.

After dinner, the gift exchange begins. The person with “1” on the bottom of her plate goes first. She gets to unwrap the gift with the #1 sticker on it. The person with #2 on her plate goes next. She can either take the gift marked #2, or “steal” the #1 gift from that person. If she steals the #1 gift, she gives #2 gift to that person to unwrap. The person with the #3 plate goes next, then #4 and so on. On each subsequent turn, that person can either open the present with that number on it or “steal” another person’s unwrapped gift. Whenever a person’s gift is stolen, she is given the unwrapped gift as a replacement. When all the gifts are unwrapped, the game is over. This is a particularly fun party with large groups—10 or 15 or more people—so there are lots of gifts to unwrap and exchange.

9. Cooking Lessons

I have a few friends who like to cook like I do. We take turns teaching our specialties. I taught cannoli, apple strudel, and homemade pasta making. Another gave lessons for making chili rellenos. Someone else made pirogies. These are best for small gatherings—somewhere around 4 to 6 people—so that everyone can have space to see around the kitchen workspace.

This is another event though that can get expensive for the host.  We all know that groceries are not cheap these days. What I’ve done with these kind of parties is to figure out how much it’s going to cost for whatever food item we’re going to prepare. Then divide those costs up per person.  Once the food item is prepared, you and your guests can eat it together. Or, you may want to buy “to go” containers to send the food items home with your guests.

10. Wine, cheese and chocolate tasting party

This is really a simple party.  As your guests to each bring a bottle of wine and either a cheese and cracker tray or some pieces of chocolate on a tray. This is really fun with large groups—somewhere between 10 and 20 people—so you can have a lot of different wines, cheeses and chocolate to sample.  You may want to ask half of your guests to bring a chocolates and the other bring cheese and crackers. You may want to assign specific types of cheese to bring: such as a brie to bake, a cheeseball, or some sliced cheeses.

As the host, you will need to supply wine glasses (you can go to stores like World Market and Bed, Bath and Beyond and buy very inexpensive wine glasses—usually not much more than $1 a glass—or you could buy disposable plastic wine glasses from your local party store), paper luncheon-sized plates, and cocktail napkins. A set of wine charms are also nice to set out, so that guests can keep track of which glass is theirs!

These are my favorite gals’ get-togethers. I’m sure there are other ideas too…but hopefully this list will get you started!



Thursday, August 7, 2014

Chocolate Caramel Thumbprint Cookies

I do a lot of cookie baking…not just for my family to gobble up but also to serve to guests. One of my favorites to make is chocolate caramel thumbprint cookies. They’re just an extra-special cookie in how they taste and in how they look. They look spectacular on a tray at a bridal shower or tea party, or for dessert with ice cream after a dinner party. Not only that, these cookies are easy to prepare…really!

I make them ahead of time and freeze them. Then I pull them out of the freezer and set them out at room temperature 30-60 minutes before serving. Nobody would ever know they’d been frozen! To freeze them, put them on a single layer on a cookie sheet or large pate, uncovered, in the freezer for 1-2 hours until they are frozen solid. Then place them in a plastic freezer container, layered with sheets of waxed paper between each layer. They freeze wonderfully…and can be frozen for 2-3 months.

Here’s the recipe:


Cookie dough:
1 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 ¼ cups granulated sugar
2 large eggs, separated
1 ½ tsp. pure vanilla extract
¼ cup whole milk
2 cups flour (unbleached or all-purpose)
2/3 cup cocoa
¼ tsp. salt
2 ½ to 3 cups finely chopped pecans

Caramel sauce:
35 caramel candies
1/3 cup heavy whipping cream

White, dark or milk chocolate candy melts or dipping chocolate wafers

Cream butter and sugar together. Beat in egg yolks (set aside the whites to use later), vanilla and milk. Blend in flour, cocoa and salt. Shape into balls, using about a tablespoon worth of dough to form each ball. Place balls on a cookie sheet or large platter and refrigerate for about an hour to firm them up.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Beat the two egg whites until frothy. Dip each chilled dough ball into the beaten egg whites, then roll into the chopped pecans.  Place them on a parchment paper-lined cookie sheet. Using your fingertip, melon baller, or the end of a wooden spoon, make an indentation in each cookie. Bake cookies for 10-12 minutes—until cookies are set.

While cookies are baking, prepare caramel sauce. Unwrap the caramels and place them in a small saucepan. Add the heavy whipping cream. Stir over low heat until caramels are completely melted and the mixture is smooth. This should only take about 5 minutes. Remove from heat.

Take cookies out of oven. Use your melon baller or end of the wooden spoon to press in the centers of the cookies once again. Place a dab of warm caramel into each indentation. (I use a small, demitasse spoon to do this and it works great!). Let the cookies cool to room temperature, and the caramel to harden. This will probably take about 30-45 minutes.

Once the cookies are cooled and the caramel is firmed up, melt the chocolate dipping discs in the microwave. Any chocolate you would use for dipping strawberries will work. Most grocery stores carry at least a few kinds, as well as Michael’s and Hobby Lobby. Heat them for one minute in the microwave, in a small bowl, then take them out and stir them. You will probably need to put the chocolate wafers back in the microwave to melt some more—but just for 15 seconds. Keep taking the wafers out of the microwave every 15 seconds and stirring them until the chocolate wafers are completely melted. Be careful not to overdo it because chocolate candy discs can easily scorch. The chocolate discs may appear to still be hard and have their shape while in the microwave. But once stirred, they may be completely melted. Put the melted chocolate in a decorator bag and drizzle on top of each cookie.

These cookies taste great just made, as well as after they are frozen! This recipe makes about 3-4 dozen cookies, depending on how big you make each dough ball.





Friday, August 1, 2014

Hosting a Beading Party

The beading aisles at stores like Hobby Lobby and Michael’s have always been very tempting to me.

There are so many sparkly, colorful, ornate beads on the shelves at those stores; who can just walk by them?!! I can’t! In fact, I have been collecting beads for a few years now. In the last several years, I have made a lot of simple beaded napkin rings, to match particular color schemes for table settings. This past year, I got into full-fledged jewelry making—primarily necklaces and bracelets. My sons think I am a beading maniac. I just can’t stop making jewelry.

I really enjoy coming up with different combinations of beads for the jewelry I make…and making “custom” necklaces for particular outfits I wear…at really a fraction of the cost of what I’d pay for similar pieces of jewelry in stores. Basic beading is simple to master.

Recently I decided to pass my passion for beading along to friends—primarily their daughters—in the form of a beading party. I have a good friend (who has long been into beading) with a 10 year-old daughter. They came over, along with three of this girl’s friends and their moms. It was such a fun evening! I set out several trays of probably 100 different kinds of beads out on the center of our dining room table, along with supplies (clasps, beading string, etc.), and let the gals go at it. Except for my one friend there who was a very experienced beader, all of the other moms and their daughters hadn’t ever beaded before. So my friend and I were there to guide our guests into making their beaded jewelry. It really worked out well. The girls and moms were thrilled with the opportunity to make jewelry! We got to be creative, productive and socialize and talk…all in the same evening!

This beading party was a mother-daughter event. Beading parties could also be fun to do for a gals’ night out party (you might serve fancy mixed drinks and appetizers instead of punch and cookies like I did at this party I just did!), a bridal shower, or birthday party. What follows in this post, are a few tips for how you can host your own beading party:

1. The number one thing that might come to mind is, “Okay, it sounds fun, but I’ve never beaded before. How can you host such an event if you have no experience beading?” Well, you still can. One option would be to hire a beading instructor. There is large beading supply store in my city, in addition to Michael’s and Hobby Lobby, that have beading instructors on staff. A lot of times you can pay someone from a craft store an hourly fee to come out and do a beading lesson for you and your guests.

But really, you probably don’t need a beading instructor. You just need a good instruction manual. The book I recommend is called Stringing Beaded Jewelry, Karin Van Voorhees. That’s how I learned to bead. A lot of beading books mostly get into complicated designs. This book tells you actually how to get started and gives very easy-to-understand, step-by-step instructions for making necklaces, bracelets and earrings. I highly recommend it. You can get it on It’s a nice paperback book for $8.99. All you need to do is make a few pieces of jewelry on your own, and you will be ready to oversee a beading party if all your making is simple beaded necklaces and bracelets.

2. The other thing you might be thinking of is the cost. At this party I just hosted, I made it a gift to my guests. I already had a lot of supplies on hand—including a lot of extra beads I hadn’t used. I did go out an buy a few extra beads (so I could have a variety of bead colors on hand) at Hobby Lobby (when they were having one of their 50 percent off sales) and my local beading store. Also, two online mail order sources for beads that sell good quality for great prices are Bead Buddies and Lima Beads. I have bought quite a few beads from both of these websites. Honestly, though, I don’t think I spent more than $5 per person at my party—so it wasn’t too big of a total cost. Alternatively, you could also ask your guests upfront to chip in $5 or $10 each for supplies. (That amount may be more, if you’re paying for a beading instructor to come in to help all of you get started, and if you are using semi-precious stone beads rather than just glass or plastic beads.)

3. If you wanted, you could plan a specific beading project, with a particular necklace or bracelet design for your guests to put together. Maybe you would just ask your guests what color beads they wanted to work with—so you would all be making the same pattern, but using different color schemes. That way you could keep costs down and just buy specific supplies and amounts needed for the project. If your guests were paying for their supplies, you could figure out an exact dollar amount to charge for supplies per person. That is one option. The other thing you could do is what I did at this party, and just make it a free-for-all: have a wide variety of beads out available and let the guests come up with their own beading patterns and combinations for their projects. I think that’s more fun, because you get to be a lot more creative that way.

4. Invite no more people than your table allows, since you’re going to want all of your guests to be sitting around the same table. Usually that’s somewhere between 6 and 10 people. It’s just a lot easier if everyone’s sitting around the same table, working together. Keep in mind your guests don’t have to be “crafters” to enjoy a beading party. They just need to like jewelry and chatting with friends! Most all of my female friends meet those qualifications.

5. Set all the beads out on divided trays, or small, individual bowls, in the center of your table where you’ll be working. If it’s going to be a “free for all” party, have a wide variety of beads in different colors, sizes and textures. Choose both stone/crystal/plastic/ glass beads, along with wood and metal beads. Half the fun is coming up with the different combinations, so it’s nice to have a large selection of beads to choose from.

Set out a tray of findings too. Findings include the clasps, crimp tubes and beads, and jump rings. You will also need to set out the beading or memory wire you’re going to be using, and at least one crimping plier, chain nose plier and wire cutter. Guests can all share pliers and wire cutters, so you don’t need one for each person.

Of course even if you’re hosting a “free-for-all” beading party, you’re still going to have a limit. What I did was limit it to silver finish and antique silver finish. I did not set out antique gold, gold finish, antique copper, gunmetal and bronze findings and wires. That way I could just focus on silver—which most people seem to like. It would be overwhelming and way to expensive to have all of the findings, wires and spacer beads for each type of metal. It’s best to just choose one metal finish to work with for the evening.

At each place setting, set out a beading board, mat or cloth, so that your guests will have somewhere to arrange their designs. The beading boards can be expensive,  $10 or more each, so you may not be able to afford to buy one for each of your guests to use. They are nice though, because they have grooved channels to hold your beads and keep them from rolling around, and they’re marked with dimensions to help you determine how big your necklace is going to be. But alternatively, what I used at this beading party were beading mats. They’re just 12-inch or more squares of fabric where you can place your beads to prevent them from rolling around. You can get them at bead or craft stores for usually around $1 each.

6. Plan about 2-3 hours for your beading party (and probably keep it at the lower number if your guests are young; kids don’t seem to want to sit around and chat like “older” women do!). I did my party early on a Saturday evening, after my guests had eaten.

7. Don’t forget some refreshments. At the very least, serve up some type of beverage so your guests can sip while they bead. You may also want to offer some kind of snack food, such as a tray of cheese and crackers or some cookies. It should be a non-greasy snack food though. Greasy foods like potato chips are not good for your fingers when you’re trying to bead.

I’ve included a few photos from my beading party in this post. Really it was a super fun evening. If you decided to host a beading party of your own, please post a comment here to let me know how it went!

Happy beading!


Wednesday, July 23, 2014

How to Host a Chocolate Fondue Party

Many years ago, on a trip to Switzerland, my husband and I bought a couple of chocolate fondue sets. Over the years, we’ve gotten a lot of use out of these fondue sets. Sometimes we serve chocolate fondue for dessert, after a meat or cheese fondue dinner, or even after a “meat and potatoes” type of entrée.

We’ve also had friends over just for a chocolate dessert fondue. This can be a simple—but fun—way to entertain guests. I’ve also served up chocolate fondue for bridal and baby shower guests, for children’s parties, and for other gals’ get-togethers. Even if you’re not into cooking, chocolate fondue is an easy dessert or party idea to pull off. And once again—I am often thinking of what to serve to my friends on gluten-free diets—chocolate fondue is a super treat to serve to them.

What all is involved? For starters, you need to have something to serve your chocolate sauce in and keep it warm. What’s best is an earthenware or ceramic fondue pot. These pots (rather than a copper or other metal fondue set) are best for chocolate (or cheese fondues) because the heat is more evenly distributed and the chocolate is less likely to scorch. (Metal fondue pots should only be used for meat fondues, which heat hot oil for cooking meat.) Ceramic and earthenware fondue sets are not always easy to find in the United States; however specialty cooking stores and usually carry at least a few.

If you don’t have a chocolate fondue pot, you can improvise by using a small, quart-sized crock pot and keep it on a how setting so the chocolate doesn’t burn. Rival’s 16-ounce “Little Dipper” is just big enough to hold the chocolate sauce recipes below. Turn the crock pot on low, and heat the chocolate fondue for 30 minutes to an hour—just until the mixture is warm. Usually, I’ll make up the chocolate fondue ahead of time, keep it in the fridge, and when we sit down to eat the main meal, I’ll start the chocolate fondue heating in the crock pot.

Here are the recipes for my three favorite chocolate fondue sauces. (If you’re going to be serving up the fondue  to kids, the first recipe is obviously your best bet since this sauce doesn’t contain alcohol.)

1 12-ounce package chocolate chips (semi sweet or milk chocolate)
4 T. butter
2 cans sweetened condensed milk
2 tsp. vanilla extract

16 oz. milk, bittersweet or dark chocolate, grated
1 cup heavy whipping cream
¼ cup kirsch, Irish cream liqueur, Kahlua, Amaretto, Frangelico, crème de cacao, or Grand Marnier

16 oz. milk chocolate, grated
2 T. instant coffee or espresso powder
1 ½ cups heavy whipping cream
2 T. Kahlua or Tia Maria liqueur, optional

For all three recipes, the instructions are basically the same. In a small sauce pan or microwave, melt together the chocolate chips or grated chocolate, and butter, condensed milk or cream. Remove from heat, and stir in the vanilla extract or liqueur. Pour into ceramic fondue pot or crock pot.  Serve the chocolate fondue with a variety of dippers.

*Whole, fresh strawberries
*Banana slices
*Fresh peach slices
*Fresh apple slices
*Fresh raspberries
*Kiwi slices
*Honeydew melon cubes
*Pear wedges
*Fresh, pitted dark sweet/Bing cherries
*Whole, fresh figs
*Mango pieces
*Dried apricots
*Canned mandarin orange segments
*Chunks of fresh or canned pineapple
*Large marshmallows
*Angel food cake cubes
*Pound cake cubes
*Frozen cheesecake cubes
*Brownie cubes (bite-sized pieces; chocolate or butterscotch brownies)
*Vanilla wafers
*Sponge cake cubes
*Lady finger cubes
*Graham wafers

Certainly you don’t have to have all of the above dippers on hand with your chocolate fondue, but ideally you should offer at least 7 to 10 types of dippers for your guests to choose from. Arrange the dippers on a large platter and pass that around the table for your guests to choose what they want. Alternatively, you may want to provide two different trays of dippers, and place one at each end of the table.

Put the chocolate fondue pot in the center of the table, in easy reach of all of your guests. Each guest should have a dessert plate, fondue fork and napkins as well, along with water glasses. (After eating a lot of chocolate, cold water is usually much appreciated!) Adult guests may also like to sip on champagne or a dessert wine while doing their dipping.

If you want to go one step further and make it an even more decadent experience for your guests, you may want to provide a selection of sprinkles for your guests to sprinkle on their chocolate-dipped treat after being coated in chocolate. Shredded coconut, candy sprinkles, mini M&Ms and chopped nuts are some ideas for sprinkles. You can put the sprinkles in shaker containers or small bowls with spoons. Guests can either take a small spoonful or shake some of the sprinkles onto their dessert plates. Then once they’ve dipped a piece of fruit, cake cube, etc., in the chocolate sauce, they can then roll it into the sprinkles on their plate. This can be a fun way to make chocolate fondue even better!

It’s worth noting too that the most scrumptious chocolate fondues use good quality chocolate. This is no time to try to save money with low-quality or generic chocolate chips or chocolate chunks. If you want a smoother, more complex flavor, go with a European bittersweet brand, such as Lindt, Toblerone or Callebaut. Of course, Ghiradelli, Nestle’s and Hershey’s also make good chocolate. It just depends on what taste you’re going for (kids often prefer the more standard milk chocolate rather than a more complex, bittersweet chocolate). Whatever combination of chocolate and dippers you use, it’s sure to be a tasty treat for you and your guests!


Friday, July 18, 2014

Gluten Free Desserts


I have a lot of friends who are on gluten-free diets. Even though I eat gluten myself (I don’t have celiac disease, or any of the symptoms of gluten intolerance, thankfully!), I do think, as hosts, it’s important we serve foods to our guests that are what they like and desire. So…I have come up with a few favorite gluten-free desserts that I often serve to my guests who are on a g/f diet. Here are my favorites:


1 1/3 cups granulated sugar, divided
6 large eggs
3 cups whole milk
2 tsp. vanilla

Measure out 2/3 cups of the sugar and place in a heavy skillet. Turn the heat to medium high. Let cook until the sugar is caramelized. Stir or wiggle the pan occasionally to ensure the sugar is being heated evenly. Once the sugar starts caramelizing, turn heat to low. Keep stirring occasionally until all the sugar is melted and golden. This will take about 5 minutes. Divide this mixture into 8 individual ramekins or custard cups. Set aside until ready to fill.

In a medium bowl, beat eggs, milk, the remaining 2/3 cup sugar and vanilla together just until well blended. Pour into custard cups.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Flan cooks best in a water bath. To do this, p-lace paper towels on the bottom of a large roaster or baking pan (this will prevent the ramekins from slipping). Put enough hot water in pan to reach a depth of ½ inch. Carefully  place ramekins in water bath. Bake in preheated oven for 30 to 45 minutes, just until custards are set (they should jiggle slightly in the center when shaken). Remove from oven. Carefully remove flans from water bath and cool on wire rack for about an hour. Cover each flan with plastic wrap and chill in refrigerator for several hours or overnight.

When ready to serve, run a knife around the inside of the ramekins to unmold. Place a serving plate on top of each ramekin and then flip cup and plate. Serve immediately.


8 ounce package cream cheese, softened
1 1/3 cups superfine granulated sugar (or “Baker’s Sugar”)
2/3 cup unsweetened cocoa
1/3 cup milk
2 tsp. vanilla
3 cups heavy whipping cream

Combine cream cheese and sugar in medium mixing bowl. Stir in cocoa, milk and vanilla and beat until smooth. Whip cream until stiff peaks form; fold in. Spoon into a decorator bag with a star tip and pipe into chocolate dessert cups. You can buy these in specialty grocery stores, or make your own. Put them in the refrigerator until ready to serve, or freeze them until serving time. They can be frozen up until 3 months. (If you freeze them, pull them out of the freezer a half hour before serving and set them out at room temperature. They will be the perfect consistency for eating!). If desired, garnish with a chocolate covered espresso bean or chocolate leaf. (You can do this before freezing if you like, or garnish once the mousse is thawed from the refrigerator. Garnishing chocolate mousse cups with fresh raspberries or strawberries is also nice.) .

Making your own chocolate shells:
I have a huge selection of chocolate dessert cup molds, which I have collected over the years. You can sometimes find these molds at craft shops. If you can’t find them there, I suggest going online and getting them from carries a large variety of chocolate cups and candy molds. My favorite are made by CK Products. Wilton also makes some. These are plastic sheet with 4 or 6 individual dessert mold cavities on it: an oval, triangle, diamond and circle. You can also find molds for individually-sized round fluted and cordial cups. They’re smaller, but great for filling bite-sized portions of mousse.

To make the chocolate molds, you will need to coat them with chocolate. I usually use either Wilton “Candy Melts” candy coating wafers, or one of the brands of chocolate disks available at craft stores such as Hobby Lobby. You can also find a huge selection of melting chocolate for dipping strawberries, at supermarkets. These work fine too. You can choose from white, dark or milk chocolate candy melts. I like all three, and usually I’ll make all three types of chocolate cups—just to have the variety. Melt the chocolate disks in the microwave in a small glass or plastic bowl, for one minute. Stir, then melt for 15 to 30 second intervals until the chocolate is just melted (you don’t want it to burn!).

Use a small paint brush, and “paint” a layer of chocolate on the inside of each mold. After the mold cavities are all painted, lightly tap the mold to get out any air bubbles. Then put the mold in the freezer for a 2-3 minutes. When the chocolate is hard, take out the mold and pop out each chocolate cup. Now you are ready to fill them.

Alternatively, I have also made a large chocolate “box” out of the same dipping chocolate and filled it with the entire batch of the chocolate mousse recipe above. I kept it in the freezer overnight to harden a bit. Then the next morning, I took it out of the freezer, put glazed strawberries in the center (the berries were dipped in commercial—Maries’s--strawberry pie glaze) and then piped whipped cream around the edges. Then I kept it in the refrigerator until serving time—which was that evening. The picture of this dessert is below:


2 cups sweetened shredded coconut
4 T. chopped raw almonds
4 T granulated sugar
4 T unsalted butter, melted

Toast the almonds and coconut for about 5-7 minutes in 350 degree oven until lightly golden brown and fragrant. Chop the almonds in a food processor fairly finely. Put almonds and coconut in a bowl. Add sugar and melted butter. Stir to combine. Press the mixture into the bottom and partially up the sides of a 10-inch the cheesecake pan. Refrigerate until time to fill.


4 (8 oz.) pkgs. cream cheese
1 ¼ cups granulated sugar
2 (4 inch) vanilla beans, split lengthwise and seeds scraped out
4 large eggs, room temperature
1 T. pure vanilla extract
¼ tsp. pure almond extract
2 cups sour cream
½ cup heavy whipping cream

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Beat cream cheese and sugar together until smooth. Add vanilla beans, vanilla and almond extracts and eggs, and beat until well-blended. Stir in sour cream and heavy cream and mix in just until blended.  Spoon into prepared crust. Bake 60-70 minutes, or until filling is lightly golden and “poofed” in the center. Turn off oven. Let cool in the oven, with oven door open. Then remove from oven and let cool at room temperature another hour. Refrigerate several hours or overnight. Garnish with fresh strawberries or berries or canned pie filling.


These are easy to make. You can use the same melting chocolate for dipped strawberries, that you use for make chocolate dessert shells for mousse cups. Hershey’s and Ghirardelli both make candy melts that are really good quality, aren’t expensive, and don’t have to be tempered before using. You can probably find them at just about any grocery store.

Finding good strawberries can be a challenge, even in the summer when the berries are in season. Try to find vine-ripened, plump and large stawberries with no bruises or mold. Long-stemmed berries are the best (although you can pay a premium for the long stems), and fresh, green caps. You may have to go to several stores to find good quality berries. A lot of supermarkets may only have half-ripened berries, or berries that have been ripened after picking—and they just don’t have the taste they should. 

Wash the berries in cool water and lightly pat them with waxed paper to remove water. Let them set out on paper towels about an hour at room temperature. This will prevent condensation from forming later on when you coat the berries with melted chocolate.

Line a large cookie sheet or baking pan with waxed paper, freezer paper or parchment paper. This is what you will set your berries on once they’ve been dipped in chocolate.

Melt the chocolate in a double-boiler or in the microwave. If you melt your chocolate over the stove, it’s important to do it in a double-boiler and over a low heat. If the chocolate gets too hot or overheats, it will “seize” meaning it will become grainy and stiff—and unusable. If you melt your chocolate in the microwave, do it at one minute intervals on a medium –low setting. After each minute, take the chocolate out of the microwave and stir it. Keep doing this until the mixture is completely melted—but not overheated! The chips may appear like they’re still hard and fully shaped, but once you take them out of the microwave and stir them, they are a nice, smooth mixture—and perfect for dipping!

Dip the strawberries one at a time. Hold them by their stem, and carefully dip them on the chocolate. You may want to make “confetti” strawberries, where you dip them in a variety of toppings: shredded choconut, chopped nuts, candy sprinkles, etc. Or, you could dip them in dark or milk chocolate, and once that’s hardened, drizzle white chocolate (I like to pipe it in a decorator bag) on top—or vice versa.

Let the dipped berries rest at room temperature for 30 to 45 minutes. Then store in the refrigerator until serving time. These are best eaten within 24 hours.

Enjoy these delicious gluten-free desserts!


Thursday, July 17, 2014

How to Host a Pinochle Party

For many years now, one of my favorite ways to entertain has been through card parties….in particular, playing the bidding and trick-taking game, PINOCHLE. My husband and I will host one of our pinochle tournaments on a Saturday night, about once every 4 to 6 weeks.

We started out playing pinochle about 20 years ago, with two other couples. Over the years, we’ve gradually introduced the game to others and brought in about 15 other couples to the group. It’s a fun way to unwind and relax with friends. It can be a no-stress way to entertain.

Usually we’ll start the pinochle party around dinner time. Often we’ll just have “hearty snacks,” and all the munchies we’re eating while we’re playing cards serves as our dinner. I’ll make a few snacks ourselves (nachos, hot wings, spicy meatballs, cookies, veggies and dip, cheese and crackers, etc.), but usually our guests will each bring a snack-to-pass too. We’ll set the snacks out on the buffet table, along with some dinner-sized paper plates, and then everyone can have their munchies next to them while they play the game.

Want to try your “hand” (no pun intended!) at hosting a pinochle party? Here are my suggestions:

1. We play two-handed pinochle, meaning we play with two teams of two people each. So this means your guest list will need to be in multiples of four. Once you know who’s coming, write everyone’s name down on a piece of paper and put them in a hat (or basket or bowl or whatever). Usually we play as couples, so we’ll just write down surnames and put them in the hat. After everyone has arrived, draw the names from the hat to see what couples play each other.
2. We usually invite at least 3 other couples to our pinochle nights, so that we can have the game going at two different tables. However, we have had as many as 12 couples over for a pinochle party, meaning we have six pinochle tables set up. If you’re going to do this often like we do, it’s nice to have a folding card table or two you can use, plus some extra folding chairs.

3. If you start playing this a lot, you will probably have your “regulars” who come over every time or fairly regularly. But of course, I’m really into hospitality and getting to know new people, and helping others get to know new people too. So I like to invite a new couple every now and then as well. By “new couple” I mean people who have never played the game before. I always try to reassure them that mostly we’re just having fun, and that pinochle, with us anyway, isn’t a super competitive game. It’s also very easy to learn. Usually I’ll put the new couple at a table with people who are very experienced at the game, who can do a practice round and help them out a bit. Of course, sometimes we’re surprised because newbies often beat the pants off the rest of us!

4. Have a sheet of paper or notepad and a pen at each table, along with a deck of pinochle cards and the instructions which are printed below (even experienced pinochle players sometimes forget what type of meld is worth what!). If you’ve got a “newby” at your table, he or she will probably find the instructions very helpful!

5. Usually we’ll play one game at first. That’s when one of the teams at your table gets to 150 points. Once every table is finished with one game, then we’ll rotate. The winners will usually play the winners. So if we have two tables, the winners of each game will play each other, and then the losers will play each other. Often times, there’s so much talking going on during the evening that we only play two games. Sometimes we’ll end up playing more if everyone’s focused. If there’s time for a third round, we’ll rotate teams again. Winners play winners, or at least, new teams play each other. The team with the most wins for the evening walks away with the pinochle trophies that we have had made up. These rotate among the couples in our pinochle group.

6. I have typed up our instructions for pinochle. Everybody probably plays this game a little differently. What I have, below, is how we play:

Pinochle Rules

Two teams of two.
Use a 48-card deck (89 each of Ace, 10, King, Queen, Jack and 9)

In trick-taking phases of the game, the cases, tens and Kings are worth points. Queens, Jacks and 9s are not worth points (although they can take tricks).

For each round, deal out all of the cards, so that each player has 12 cards in his/her hand. Once the cards have been dealt, the players pick up, sort, and examine their hands. Then comes the bidding.


The winner of the bid gets the right to name the trump suit and the right to receive cards from his/her partner, and the right to lead the first trick.

Minimum opening bid is 15. The dealer’s left has the first opportunity to bid. When the bid reaches you, you have two options: Bid at least a 1-point higher bid than the last bid, or say “Pass,” thereby removing yourself from the bidding for this round. When only one person has not said “pass” that person has won the bid.


When the winning bidder has named trump, the bidder’s partner selects three cards to pass to him or her (obviously face down so that the opponents can’t see the cards!). The bidder picks up these three cards and sorts them into his/her hand and then chooses three cards to send back to his/her partner as replacement cards. Only the bid-winning two-person team gets to exchange cards.


After the winning bidder and his/her partner has exchanged cards, all four players lay down their melds. This is the 1st phase of accumulating points for the round.

Points are accumulated for the following types of melds:

Marriage (King and Queen) in trump suit = 4 points
Marriage in any other suit = 2 points
Run (A, 10, K, Q, J in trump suit) = 15 points (A “9” in trump suit can be added to the run for an extra point)
4 Aces (one in each suit) = 10 points
4 Kings (one in each suit) = 8 points
4 Queens (one in each suit) = 6 points
4 Jacks (one in each suit) = 4 points
Pinochle (Queen of Spades and Jack of Diamonds) = 4 points
Double Pinochle ( 2 Queens of Spades and 2 Jacks of Diamonds) = 30 points

You can “double duty” individual cards with your melds, as long as they are different types of melds. For instance, if you lay down 4 Queens, each of a different suit, for 6 points, you could place a King of Diamonds next to the Queen of Diamonds and have a marriage as well.

When laying down melds, partners can not add to what each other has put down. For instance, if one player lays down a Pinochle and his/her partner also has a pinochle in his/her hand, he/she cannot add that pinochle to his/her partner’s pinochle and claim a double pinochle. All four players each put down their own melds. Once points have been added up and recorded for melds, players pick up their melds and put the cards back in their hands, so that they can start the trick-taking part of the round.


After players have their cards back in their hands, the winner of the bid leads the first trick. Proceeding to the left, each player plays a card on the trick. When all four cards have been played for that trick, the highest-ranking card of the trump—or, if there is no trump in the trick (which there probably isn’t going to be during the first few tricks), the highest-ranking card of the suit that led, wins the trick. If there is a tie for the highest-ranking card, the trick is won by whichever of the equal cards was played first. The player who played the winning card leads the next trick.

There are some rules which must be followed when laying down cards during tricks:

**The first, or lead card, may be anything in the leader’s hand. Trump cannot be the lead card, unless trump has been “broken,” meaning in a previous trick, someone put down a trump card to take the trick. The only exception is if the leader has nothing but trump in his/her hand, he or she can still lead with a trump card, even if trump has not yet been broken.

**If you have a hard of the same suit as the lead card, you must play it. If you cannot follow suit, you can play any other suit card. This means you could lay down a trump card if you have it, because then you would take the trick—unless a player after you lays down a higher trump card.

**The first of two identical cards beats the second.

**Each team should designate one partner to “pull” the tricks or gather them from the center of the table over to the pile for their team.


Once all 12 tricks have been played, both teams collect their stacks of pulled cards and count up their points collected during that round. Aces, tens and Kings are each worth 1 point. The other cards are not worth anything. The team that won the last trick gets an additional 1 point. There are a total of 25 points available during the trick-taking portion of each round.

If the declaring team “makes the bid” (meaning they collected enough points through melding and trick-taking combined to meet or exceed the amount of their bid), all the earned points are added to the team’s previous score. If they do not make their bid, they do not score any points from their melds or tricks they took, and their previous score is reduced by the amount bid.

If the non-declaring team (the team that didn’t win the bid) fails to take any tricks, they do not get the points from any melds they laid down at the start of the round.

150 points = GAME

Have fun!!!