A Gingerbread Village

I taught a baking class one year at this time. The College hosted a “Christmas at the College” event so we built a Gingerbread Village.

We invited small children in to decorate graham cracker houses and students created large house. Here is a gallery of the different houses on display.

Notice the windows, inside lighting, stained glass and the one Thomas Kincaid House and look for the ice skater and the 3 little pigs houses made from “straw, sticks and bricks”.

There are a lot of ideas for decorating your gingerbread house. Some materials you can use are:

  • Ice cream cones: traditional and sugar cones for roof peaks and trees
  • Sheet gelatin for windows, you can make stained glass by using a cotton swab and food coloring
  • Rock candy for rock walls and pathways
  • Shredded wheat for thatched roofs and frosted shredded wheat for snow topped
  • Dentine gum for bricks
  • Marshmallows for snow men
  • Candy corn for candle flames
  • Pretzel rods and sticks for fence posts and fire wood stacks
  • Hold your house together with hot glue and then cover the glue with royal icing. The house will hold together better and not be as fragile.
  • Don’t cut walls too thin. They need to be strong enough to support the weight of the roof and all the candy you are going to stuck to it.
  • Use a sturdy board as the base so you can move the house around on the base and not have to lift the actual house itself to move around.
  • Plan a hole in the bottom of the board to stuff twinkle lights into so the inside of the house lights up.

Happy Holidays!

Entertaining

Entertaining is a word that can strike fear or pure pleasure in people.

Hors d’oeuvres spoons

The prospect of entertaining need not be a burden, just have a plan of action to make everything go smoothly. Don’t be afraid to begin planning well before your party. Allow yourself time to work on the details so when your party time arrives you will be well prepared to host a spectacular event.

Choose your location

Consider using your home to host your party. Take a look around and see how many people can comfortable fit. If they are going to be seated, is there enough seating and adequate space? Is this a standing conversing party? The occupancy changes if you are doing a seated dinner vs. a cocktail style party.

If you live in a small apartment, there may be a communal area you can reserve. If you live is a temperate climate or at the beach, consider holding your event outdoors. On the beach, in a park or back yard are all great locations.

Determine your guest list

Choose a varied guest list to keep the conversations lively. If everyone had the same interests, there will be a lot of ‘shop-talk’ instead of exchanging ideas and discovery conversations.

Please be considerate and don’t invite ex’s or enemies to the same events.

Strive for a balance of genders. Be considerate of those who are couples and who are singles. Being the only single at a party full of couples can be socially odd as can being the only couple at a singles party. Strive for a good mix.

Is there a theme?

It could be Christmas or Holidays, Halloween, Valentines Day, Kentucky Derby Day, Wedding, St. Patrick’s Day or Talk Like a Pirate

International Talk Like a Pirate Day

International Talk Like a Pirate Day (Photo credit: ParaScubaSailor)

Day or a just because.

Having a theme will make your choice of decorations and menu easier.

Plan you menu

Plan your menu

Unless you are having a dinner party, most party food should be small and able to be eaten without the use of a knife. Think about trying to balance a drink and eat while trying to impress someone you are just meeting.

My rule is 1-2 bites in size.

Make your favorite nibbles in bite size. Martha Stewart’s Hors d’ Oeuvres is one of the best references out there. If you ever see it, buy it.

Cover of "Martha Stewart's Hors d'Oeuvres...

Cover via Amazon

This post is not about menus or recipes but about how to plan a party so you don’t lose your mind in the process.

As I host a party or two this season, I will have menus and recipes.

Look at the space you have to display food. You are going to make yourself miserable if you plan more food than you can accommodate.

Decide what tables and surfaces you are going to use for what. A kitchen counter (clean and uncluttered) is nice for a beverage station.

If you need to borrow a table or two, make arrangements.

Write out your menu and make small labels. Take out your plates and dishes and decide what food is going on what plate. Put a label on each dish you decide to use. Arrange to borrow or buy or rent what you need beyond what you have.

Your menu should not require you to be in the kitchen longer than 10-15 minutes while guests are present. Plan a do ahead menu so you can spend time with your guests.

If you are planning an elegant holiday gathering and need stem-ware or nice glasses you can

A table full of glasses

go to the dollar store and see what they have. Often they have exactly what you need.

If you really don’t want to store 60 wine glasses, you can always rent them. Same with china and silverware, unless you choose to go

Rental Party Accessories

paper and plastic.

If you plan on entertaining more than once every year or so, you may want to buy a few nice display pieces. Large platters, staggered tray displays, small chafing dishes. Evaluate what you use and if it is worth storing.

Hint: If you go paper, buy a good quality. There is nothing worse than cheap paper plates and cheap plastic silverware. Same with paper napkins. Quality matters.

Plan your decor

Decor does not need to be elaborate. Use branches, pine cones, leaves, candles, berries, fruit, nuts, ribbons, even glass vases filled with Cheetos work.

Once I bought river stones and put them through the dishwasher. I lined trays with the hot rocks and placed food on the hot rocks to keep food warm. The rocks were scattered all over the table along with geodes, slabs of cut rock, and slate.

Ball and Mason jars make great candle holders for outdoor events.

Send your invitations at least two weeks ahead of time, three weeks is ideal. Ask for an RSVP so you have an idea how many to expect.

Make your shopping list.

Make your ‘need to do’ list.

Plan your activities on a calendar so you keep track and get everything done on time.

Make your parties enjoyable. If you want casual, make it casual, formal, make it formal. Make it what ever you are comfortable with hosting.

If you find you need help, either ask friends or hire one or two to clean things up and keep platters and dishes full.

Beverages

Don’t feel obligated to provide a full bar. Provide a party cocktail for everyone, red or white wine. Ask people to bring their own drinks. Be sure you have non-alcoholic beverages too.

Be a good host and NEVER allow your guests to drink and drive.

Have the number of a taxi service on hand so you can call inebriated guests a ride home. If you allow a drunk person to drive away, you could be held liable for any damages they cause if they were to get in an accident.

With December approaching, plan on having a party this season.

I always love the energy that remains in the house after a nice party, especially during the holidays.

How To Roast a Turkey

Dear Tyler,

Roasting a good turkey takes time.

A roast turkey prepared for a traditional U.S....

See the pop-up timer in the bird? (the white thing)

Your first turkey!

The adventure begins.

If you use an aluminum roasting pan, put a sheet pan under it and do not lift the foil pan without the sheet pan support.

The bird:

Defrost:

See the post on 4 ways to safely thaw food.

Whenever you handle poultry products, act as if you are handling potential contaminates.

Defrost in the refrigerator: at least 5 hours per pound.

If on roasting day it is still not thawed, complete the thawing under clean running water. Again, see 4 safe methods for thawing food.

Be sure to wash your sink both before and after rinsing the bird.

Remove the bird from the wrapper. Do this in the sink because of all the juices that will be in the bag from defrosting. If your bird has a bag of giblets, neck and livers, remove it. Some use these to make a stock and gravy but I don’t.

Your Grandfather (my dad) loves the neck! He would boil it and then pick all the little slivers of meat off the tiny neck bones, savoring every morsel.

You, on the other hand, can throw them away unless you like such things.

Rinse the bird.

Pat the bird dry with paper towels.

Pre-heat the oven to 400°F.

Before the oven gets hot, take a look at the shelves and adjust them so the turkey will fit in. In my oven the only rack that will fit is the bottom rack. It leaves just the right amount of space between the top heating elements and the bird.

While the oven is preheating, finish preparing the bird.

Place your aluminum roasting pan onto a sheet pan for safety. The aluminum pan is not strong enough to hold a 15-pound bird without support.

Chop carrots , celery and onions (not you, Tyler) to line the bottom of the roasting pan.

Chop your carrots and celery into chunks and place them on the bottom of the pan. If you liked onions, you would put some of those in there too. Since you don’t like them, leave them out.

Place the turkey, breast side up into the pan. Tuck the wings under the shoulders so the tips don’t burn in the long roasting process.

Gently loosen the skin and press some seasoned butter under the skin. This will help baste the bird as it roasts.

Season the skin and place some herbs, orange or citrus fruit into the cavity. Season inside the bird too. Season it with salt, pepper, your favorite spice mixture, what ever seasonings you like.

Tie the legs together and plump up the breasts.

Cover with bacon strips to baste the turkey during the initial phase of roasting. Remember the large bird will roast for several hours. After the first 2-3 hours, the bacon will be done, remove it and this becomes the “cooks treat”. Continue roasting the bird, basting every 30-40 minutes. The skin will crisp and become golden brown. If the skin starts to get too brown before the bird is done, tent it with foil.

Cover the surface of the turkey with bacon strips.

Place the supported roasting pan into the oven. Reduce the heat to 325°F. Roast until the internal temperature reads 165°F or higher in the leg or thigh. For your 15 pound bird that will take about 3 1/2 to 4 hours, maybe longer.

My 17 pound bone-in breast took 6 hours.

If the bird starts to get too brown, cover it with a tin foil tent.

When the bird is done, remove from the oven and allow the bird to rest at least 1/2 hour (covered in foil) before carving.

How do you carve a turkey? I found this video on You Tube that shows you step by step.

I didn’t have time to make a video for you, sorry.

Enjoy your Turkey! Take pictures of your first.

How odd in our culture, roasting your first turkey is some kind of right of passage.

I love cooking this meal and hope you do too.

Watch the carving video, use a sharp knife and enjoy your dinner!

Here is a tip:

Place your cutting board in a sheet pan to catch all the juices that run out while carving. Stir these juices into your gravy.

Tyler, remember, I am just a phone call away if you get stuck.

There are also many other “Turkey Hot Lines” for those  who get stuck.

If all else fails and you totally blow it, Chinese restaurants are usually open on Thanksgiving as an Emergency Back-up Unit.

Love you!

Mom

 

How to make Cranberry Sauce – easier than you think!

Dear Tyler:

Cranberry Sauce is easier than you think! Glad you asked. It is very exciting to be cooking your first Thanksgiving Feast! So here is the recipe you asked for:

How to make cranberry sauce

Forget the can. Grab a bag of fresh cranberries, sugar and some water, oranges and sherry (a fortified wine, like Marsala) and we can have an array of cranberry sauces to amaze everyone.

Here are 3 super easy and full of flavor cranberry sauces. The only one I don’t think you’ll try is the sherry one, but one day, perhaps you will enjoy the complexity of flavors of sherry and cranberry.

The first recipe is found on nearly every bag of fresh cranberries.

Easy Cranberry Sauce

  • 1 12-16 ounce bag of fresh cranberries or equivalent  of frozen berries.
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 cup sugar
  • pinch of salt

Put it all in the pot and bring to a boil

Add all ingredients to a  deep sauce pan. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer at an active simmer for 5 minutes.

Boil then actively simmer for 5 minutes. Serve warm or cold.

Serve warm, room temperature or cold with roasted or grilled meats. Especially Thanksgiving Turkey!

Cranberry Orange Sauce

  • 1 orange, cut into quarters
  • 1 12-oz bag fresh or frozen cranberries
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • pinch salt

Remove the pithy core and seeds’ cut into quarters. Use a blender or food processor to puree.

Remove the seeds and the pithy core. Add the oranges, cranberries and sugar to a food processor or blender and puree until almost smooth. Thin with either cranberry or orange juice if needed.

Process until smooth

Place in a container and serve with just about whatever you want. I like turkey especially.

If you make this with frozen cranberries, you get a sorbet like consistency. Delicious!

Sherried Cranberry Sauce

  • 1 12-16 ounce bag of fresh cranberries or equivalent  of frozen berries.
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 cup sugar
  • pinch of salt
  • 1/4 cup dry sherry
Cranberry Sauce 003

Cranberry Sauce 003 (Photo credit: MGF/Lady Disdain)

Add all ingredients to a  deep sauce pan, except the sherry. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer at an active simmer for 5 minutes.

Stir in the sherry. Blend until smooth if desired. Strain if you want a smooth sauce.

Serve warm, room temperature or cold with roasted or grilled meats.

These are the 3 most popular cranberry sauces our family uses.

So here you go. You can now carry on Turkey traditions!

3 Cranberry sauces from left to right: Orange Cranberry, Easy Cranberry Sauce and Sherried Cranberry Sauce

Tomorrow:

Since you are cooking your first turkey Thursday, I’ll write a post on:

How to Roast a Turkey

Love,

Mom

Pear, Bleu Cheese and Arugula Salad

What a marvelous crisp and tasty fresh salad! Crisp pears, shaved thin, spicy arugula, earthy bleu cheese, crunchy hemp seeds and for dressing, simple drizzle with fresh lemon juice and extra virgin olive oil.

Grab a pear

Pear, Roquefort, Arugula Salad

1 small handful fresh arugula for each salad bowl

1/2 fresh ripe pear, any variety

1-2 tablespoons Roquefort or any bleu cheese for each serving

1 tablespoon toasted hemp seeds

1/2 lemon, please, not bottled juice!

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

Place the arugula into a bowl. Slice the pear and place slices over arugula.

Crumble bleu cheese over, top with toasted hemp seeds (Optional)

Drizzle with lemon juice and olive oil as dressing.

Refreshing and delicious!

Pear and arugula salad

An Easy Crust for Pies and Tarts

Here is a super simple dough to use for pies and tarts. One key to working with any tart dough is to keep it cold. This allows the fat to melt while baking which creates light, flaky crusts.

Plum Blackberry Almond Tart

With lots of holiday events approaching, here is a simple basic approach to a nice pie or tart dough.

If you want a double crust, double the recipe. This only makes 1 crust.

Easily done by hand, you can also use a food processor, just pulse the ingredients without the water, add water, bit by bit to make the dough mass. You may use all the water, only some or you may need more. It depends on how much moisture your flour holds.

Easy Pie or Tart Crust

  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 3 ounces cold butter, cut into small cubes
  • 3 – 5 tablespoons ice-cold water

If creating the crust by hand, combine the salt and sugar with the flour. Cut the cubed butter into the flour using a pastry cutter, two knives or a fork.

English: A dough blender; also called a pastry...

English: A dough blender; also called a pastry blender. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Cut the fat into the flour

When the mix resembles a coarse mixture (you still want to see some globs of butter, don’t make it smooth) add the ice-cold water tablespoon by tablespoon.

The mass should come together. Only use as much water as you need to bring the ball together. You may need more water or less water. This is why you add it bit by bit.

Add enough water to just bring the dough ball together when you squeeze it.
You want to see blobs of fat in the dough, not smooth.

Press the dough into a ball and place it between 2 pieces of plastic wrap. Press it into a disk.

Refrigerate until cold.

Roll the dough between sheets of plastic wrap

Roll the chilled dough out to the size you need while it is still in between the wrap. This makes it easier to handle and is much easier to clean up too.

Remove one side of the plastic wrap. Position the dough over the pie or tart pan and press it into place.

Alternatively, you can press the dough into the pan and then chill while you prepare the filling.

Much easier is to use the fluted tart pans with the removable bottoms. Press the dough into the tart pan. Make sure you have at least 1/4 inch at the sides and at the curve of the pan so it is strong enough to stand on its own when the pan is removed.

Small fluted tart shells ready for filling

The fluted edge pans give all your tarts such a professional finished look, they are so worth the investment. Since they come in many sizes, you can make large tarts or small individual ones and any size in between.

Ready to fill and bake. See the fat? That means you will have a flaky crust.

Fill them just as you would a pie.

If you use a top crust, decorate it with dough cut outs instead of just a pile of dough on top of the filling.

Or use a strusel topping or leave the fruit exposed and glaze with melted apple or seedless raspberry jelly when the tart is done. This puts a “sealing glaze” on the fruit and makes it shiny. The photo of the Plum and Blackberry Almond Tart at the beginning of this post is finished with melted red currant jelly.

Here are some of my thoughts about using other ingredients besides water and butter.

Butter: Fat is fat, at least the melting point of butter is lower than body temperature. Fat provides tenderness and flavor to the crust. I’d rather eat butter than Crisco or lard or hydrogenated oils like margarine. I have yet to try coconut oil.

Water: Some recipes will ask you to use vodka instead of water. It provides a flaky crust too. Alcohol evaporates faster than water therefore creating a flakier crust. Try it if you like. I don’t drink distilled spirits so it never occurs to me to use vodka.

Flour: Use a good quality organic flour. You can use gluten-free flours too. I’m just not too sure how strong the non-wheat flours will hold up in a fluted pan once the outer ring is removed. My experience is most gluten-free baked goods are crumbly due to the lack of gluten.  Not sure how to over come that but since I’m not gluten-free, I use King Arther’s unbleached AP flour and I get pretty crusts.

I do know if I had to go gluten-free, I would miss pie crust, tarts, and good chewy bread tremendously.

No matter what liquid you use, just be sure it is ice-cold. I use a large measuring cup with lots of ice and water and scoop what I need from there. When finished, I pour the cold water into a glass and make lemonade or tea. I suppose you could do the same with vodka. Use lots of ice.

Bake off empty shells by lining with parchment and filling with rice or beans and baking until done. Fill with fresh fillings.

Fill unbaked shells with fruits, custards, fillings and bake until golden and bubbly. Times vary but usually take 45-55 minutes in a 350°F oven.

There are so many finishing and fillings!

Use any left over scraps to make dough cut outs. Egg wash them and sprinkle with sugar. Bake on a cookie sheet until golden brown. Use these on the top of the tarts, place them when the tart is still hot from the oven or serve as a garnish with each serving.

Be creative.

The Gift of Pears

My crazy friend Joanie gave us a remarkable gift of pears. I was immediately struck at their shapes and colors. Since they were a bit firm, the pears were placed into a bowl to ripen.

While they were still firm, I shaved on onto a salad, as they ripened, they became more sliced. One of our favorite salads now days is pear, Roquefort and arugula salad, which is a post soon to follow this one.

We have enjoyed the pears, both as a centerpiece and as tasty delights. I’ll even wager there is a pear tart in the near future.

This is how we enjoy the pears in the early evening while we sip our wine and watch the sun go down.

Sliced pears, Roquefort, walnuts, cashews, local honey, cut from the comb and berries or dried fruits like apricots or cranberries.

Enjoy!

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