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!