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!!!

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

How to Make a Floating Candle Centerpiece

One of my favorite ways to “dress up” a table for a sit-down dinner is with a floating candle centerpiece. There’s just something very elegant about candles floating inside bowls of water. It really creates a special ambiance! Not only that, floating candle centerpieces can actually be a lot less expensive than a more traditional fresh flower table centerpiece—that is, if you make the floating candle centerpiece yourself.

In this post, I’m going to share some of my ideas on this topic. I’m inserting a few photos of some of the floating candle centerpieces I’ve done in recent years—just to help you envision the kinds of centerpieces you can make with floating candles. But there’s no end to what you can do! This is something you can get really creative with.

These kinds of centerpieces can be very simple productions, using just 3 or 4 items, or be quite elaborate and require lots of different elements. Either way, they’re simple to put together. What I like about them is you can assemble them days in advance of your dinner party—unlike fresh flowers, which are usually arranged relatively last minute while they’re looking their best.

The basic supplies you will need are: the floating candle(s); a glass bowl or vase (with a large enough open area for your candle—or candles—to float on); colored glass stones, crystals, shells or marbles to put inside the bottom of the vase (and possibly to set around the vase as well); a mirrored tile to set your bowl or vase on; and possibly ribbons, fabric tassels, crystal bands or organza wrap to put around the vase, or silk flowers, gold or silver foil or silk rose petals for setting around the base of the glass bowl.

You could also use real rose petals from freshly-cut roses for your centerpiece. Just place a small handful of rose petals inside the glass vase, and then fill with water. Dampen a few other rose petals and place them on the sides of the bowl. If the petals are damp enough and if the sides of the vase are flat, the petals should adhere pretty easily.

Once you start shopping around for your supplies, you will notice a wide variety in floating candles, vases and bowls. The glassware you might use runs the gamut from round fish-bowl shaped glass containers and large martini glasses and wine goblets, to vases shaped like cylinders, hourglasses, large parfait glasses and sundae bowls.

In addition to the basic tea light and half-dome shaped floating candles, you can find floating candles that are shaped like roses, rosebuds, dahlias, hibiscus, daisies, sunflowers, orchids, spheres, seashells, leaves, hearts and stars. Be sure that your floating candles fit within the openings of the vases you’re planning on using.

Obviously, what you go with will depend on whether you’re planning a very formal or casual table setting, and the colors of your plates and table linens. I’ve found some very deep teal floating rose candles, which I’ve used along with gold ribbon and beads to make very distinctive centerpieces with my teal and gold bone china. But for Thanksgiving, I’ve done more casual settings and ceramic plates in fall colors. A glass bowl with orange, red and yellow leaf-shaped floating candles, framed by a wreath of silk fall leaves, was ideal for a centerpiece.

How many centerpieces do you need? You could have one large centerpiece in the center of your dinner table that seats 6-10. Or, like I’ve done in this photo below, you could make several smaller—but identical—centerpieces to place between every couple settings of a very long table. (This photo was taken when we had 28 adults eating upstairs on folding tables in our cleared-out game room. The tables were a bit crowded for a formal dinner, but it worked out okay!)

All of the floating candle centerpieces  I’ve made have been using one glass container. It doesn’t have to be with just one though. I’ve seen some spectacular centerpieces using several different cylindrical glass vases of varying heights and mouth widths.

Assembling the centerpiece is a matter of just a few steps. First, make sure your glassware is clean. If you are going to tie ribbons, wrap organza or do any other décor to the outside of the glass container, do it before you fill the vase. Then place your marbles, beads, shells or stones in the bottom of your glassware. Fill the bowl/vase with water, to about 1 to ¾ inch from the top. Set the vase on the mirrored tile. Scatter any rose petals or other items around the base of the vase. You can do all this way in advance of your dinner party (I’ve done all this 24-36 hours before a party). Right before your guests arrive, carefully place the floating candles on top of the water and light the candles.

If you don’t want to do it all yourself, you can buy floating candle centerpiece kits online through a number of different Internet retailers. My favorite is Surroundings ( Their kits include everything needed for making one centerpiece in a particular design. You can also get some great ideas for making your own designs by checking out Surroundings’ website.

Surroundings also sells all of the supplies you could possibly need for making floating candle centerpieces. They carry some unique items like acrylic bubbles, wire orbs and small disco balls for decorating the vases and bowls, and a lot of specially-shaped floating candles in hard-to-find colors. Surroundings can be a bit pricey though for some items. I’ve also found a lot of supplies locally at Michael’s, Hobby Lobby and other craft stores, as well as discount stores like Tuesday Morning, Target and WalMart. Local retailers like these often sell the basic supplies you need to make a floating candle centerpiece, for relatively low cost (although they don’t usually have the same selection as a specialty online retailer like Surroundings).  

Well, that’s the basics! I hope I’ve given you some ideas for creating your own floating candle centerpiece for your next dinner party. It’s sure to add some “specialness” to your table!

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

How to Make M&M Cookies

I always have cookie dough balls in the freezer—to serve as dessert for a last-minute BBQ, or just to have on hand for “emergency purposes” if someone in my family needs a little pick-me-up. There is nothing like a batch of warm cookies just out of the oven, oozing with melted chocolate. Yum! That is sure to put a smile on anyone’s face.

One of my favorite cookie dough balls to make is for M&M cookies. Here’s the awesome cooking recipe:

Favorite M&M Cookies

¾ cup dark brown sugar, firmly packed
½ cup granulated sugar
½ cup butter, softened
½ cup shortening
1 ½ tsp. vanilla
1 large egg, room temperature
1 ¾ cups unbleached or all-purpose flour
½ tsp. salt
1 tsp. baking soda
1 12-oz. pkg. M&Ms
¾ cup chopped walnuts or pecans, optional

Cream sugars, butter and shortening together. Beat until light and fluffy. Add flour, salt and baking soda, and mix well. Stir in M&Ms and nuts (if desired). Shape into balls about a tablespoon in size. To bake immediately, preheat oven to 375 degrees. Bake on a parchment paper-lined cookie sheet for 10-12 minutes or until light golden brown.

A few different varieties of cookies from earlier this year-

You can also freeze the dough balls for a later use. To freeze, place dough balls on a waxed paper lined cookie sheet. Once firm, store in a freezer bag for up to three months. Thaw in refrigerator for 24 hours before baking.


Monday, July 14, 2014

Chocolate Kahlua Cheescake

When I plan a dinner party menu, I usually chose a dessert (or two or three!) to make first, and then figure out an entrée to go with it. One dessert I make gets more raves than anything else and that’s chocolate Kahlua cheesecake. It’s delicious, and fun and easy to garnish…which adds to the positive reviews. It’s also something you can do a day or two in advance, which cuts down on the stress of last-minute food prep before a party. Here’s the recipe:


1 package Oreo cookies
1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted
3 T. granulated sugar (I use Baker’s Sugar, which is finer than “regular” granulated sugar, and dissolves better.)

Take the white filling out of the Oreos, and crush the chocolate wafers in a food processor. Add in the sugar and butter, and mix well. Lightly butter the bottom and side of a 9-inch springform pan. Press the Oreo mixture into the bottom and one-inch up the side of the springform pan. Refrigerate until chilled and ready to fill. (For a do-ahead time-saver, I often make the chocolate cheesecake crusts ahead of time and put them in the freezer until ready to fill.)

1 12-oz. bag semisweet chocolate chips
2 T. unsalted butter
1/3 cup Kahlua
20 ounces (2 ½ pkgs) packages cream cheese, softened
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/8 tsp. salt
2 large eggs, room temperature
1 cup sour cream

For filling, melt butter and chocolate chips in double broiler or in small saucepan over very low heat. Stir in Kahlua and heat about a minute more, until mixture is totally melted and blended together. Set aside and let cool slightly. In mixing bowl, beat cream cheese, sugar and salt together until fluffy and there are no cream cheese lumps. Mix in eggs, one at a time. Add sour cream, and beat some more—until mixture is smooth. Bake in a 325°F oven for about an hour. Open the oven door, and let the cheesecake stay in the oven for about an hour. Then refrigerate overnight, or at least 8 hours.

2 cups heavy whipping cream
¼ cup powdered sugar
1 tsp. vanilla extra
Optional: 1 pkt. Dr. Oatker’s “Whip It” (“Sahnesteif”) whipped cream stabilizer

Whip cream with vanilla and powdered sugar to stiff peaks. Mix in the whipped cream stabilizer, if desired (This is very helpful if you are piping your whipped cream and doing it more than a few hours in advance, because the stabilizer will allow your whipped cream to keep its shape for several days). Pipe or spread whipped cream on cake (Remove sides first, and ideally the bottom too.). Garnish with chocolate-covered espresso beans, or chocolate leaves, curls or sprinkles.