Saturday, December 24, 2011

Busy Creating: Cardboard Ornaments

Are you trying to get last minute stuff done and you need something to keep your kids busy?  Me too.

We're at my parent's and we don't have our car, so most of the time, we are at the house.  Looking for things besides video games and TV to keep the kids busy can be a challenge, especially when all of my craft stuff is not here.

Do you have lots of cardboard boxes from your online orders, scissors, glue, and hopefully pompoms (scraps of paper are a great substitute).
Ask your kids what shapes they want to decorate and cut them out (don't shoot yourself in the foot and offer to do a reindeer).  Let your kids color or paint them (however- use marker if you want to leave them unattended).

Put some glue in a recycled container and put the pompoms in a bowl.  They can dip the pompoms in the glue and attach them themselves with almost no mess.

Let the glue dry and hang them on the tree.
So now, if the baby crawls in and knocks down the tree, I won't have to be as worried about her breaking an ornament ;)

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Busy Cooking: Homemade Hot Cocoa Powder

I have become a hot chocolate snob.  Living in Japan, we could get Swiss Miss, but that's just a watery excuse for hot chocolate I give to my kids because it's easy.  There were other chocolate mixes, but the milk and sugar content were different, so the tastes were different than what I wanted.

I discovered something bad, I loved Godiva hot chocolate.  In Japan, a small would run me over $5 a cup.  I started buy William Sonoma hot chocolate mix, which is quite delicious, but at $18 for a jar, it adds up.

This year, I've been searching online and on pinterest to find a perfect make ahead hot chocolate recipe.  There is a recipe on the side of Hersey's cocoa powder that is quite good, but I wanted something that I could make ahead and just have to measure into hot milk.  For the first time, Cook's Illustrated failed me.  I found their recipe for make ahead powder on Brown Eyed Baker, and was not impressed (granted I used subpar white chocolate).  Then, I found this awesome little gem of a recipe on Confection's of a Foodie Bride from Gourmet Magazine 2005 and it was the ONE!

This recipe makes about 70 servings!  I bought all the ingredients and then calculated out the cost per serving of the hot chocolate, since I was trying to save money and have great taste.  It ended up being about $0.30 per serving (and that was with a more expensive higher quality chocolate).  One batch of this would probably be enough to last all winter long, or, in my case, be sufficient to supply gifts to many of your family and friends.

Hot Chocolate Mix:

2 vanilla beans
4 cups sugar
24 oz semisweet chocolate, chopped (I used Ghiradelli chips)
9 oz. dark chocolate, chopped (I used Godiva, found it at the register at Michael's)
2 cups Dutch process cocoa powder (I used 1 cup Hersey's unsweetened cocoa, 1 cup Scharfen Berger)

1) Split vanilla beans and scrape seeds into the sugar.  Using your fingers, rub seeds into the sugar.  Place pods into the sugar, cover the bowl and let the sugar sit overnight or longer.
2) Using a food processor, with the metal blade, chop the dark and semisweet chocolates until finely ground- use 4-5 second pulses.
3) Remove pods from sugar, add in cocoa and ground chocolate, mix with a whisk until completely combined.
4) Warm 8 ounces (1 cup) milk, add in 2 -3 TBSP cocoa mix (depending on how sweet you want yours to be), mix, and enjoy!
5) Store for several months in an airtight container.

Something special my kids and I do is have hot chocolate parties.  We even have special kids sized mugs for those occasions.  I even let them add extra marshmallows and sometimes sprinkles to the top of their whipped cream.
I got the jars at Target.  You can even dress them up as gifts with scraps of fabric, what little boy wouldn't love to drink spider man hot cocoa?

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Making Christmas Magical

Recently, I was asked if I could wish for anything (something concrete or something that was not short of a miracle), what would it be.  I thought and thought and really feel truly blessed to have everything I would wish for without feeling selfish.  So, I wished that every child would experience a magical Christmas.  And, I'm not talking magical in terms of getting every toy they asked for, I'm talking experiencing wondrous magical things that make their eyes sparkle and their mouths open wide with smiles.

This year, I took out the decorations, but I never put them up- I knew it would take me time, which is limited this year, and that time would be better spent with the kids, not decorating.  I decided to save my patience and free time for fun with the kids.  I don't want my holiday to be spent worrying that the kids are going to break something or move something out of place.  We may not have many decorations up, but we are still having lots of holiday fun. Over the next few days, I will go over some of the fun things we do to make the holidays special for our family.

One tradition our family has is the Elf on the Shelf.  Some nights I go to bed and wake up in a panic because I can't remember if I moved the elf or not.  One day, I found my son awake, staring at the elf because it hadn't moved.  I panicked and told him that the elf only moves after 6:30 AM, so he went back to his room and came out later, and the elf had moved- he was happy- phew.

Somehow, this year, I told my kids that all of the elves were coming over in the middle of the night for a dinner party.  They were soooo excited.  I had my husband help them set the table, with a paper table cloth and child tea set.
They drew some pictures for our elf, Stayler:
They left a sign in sheet:
We used the mortar and pestle to crush up candy canes because they use that instead of salt and pepper:
The elves TRASHED the house with toilet paper and moved around our decorations:
They flipped the chairs:
Tipped their cups:
Cut the kids' papers into snowflakes:
Drew faces on our Christmas cards:
Signed in on the sign in sheet:
Left a candy trail on their way out the door:
Our elf was so tired, look where we found him in the morning- it was such a rough night, he stayed there for two days (oops):

I only wish I had a picture of the kids' faces when they came downstairs.  The funniest thing is they were so fixated on the knocked over, misplaced chairs, they didn't really notice the toilet paper.

What have your elves been up to?

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Busy Cooking: Gingerbread Donuts

All fall I intended to make donuts.  I had bookmarked apple cider and pumpkin spice donuts, just never got around to it.  This past weekend, as I was searching for a gingerbread muffin recipe, I happened upon a gingerbread donut recipe.  Not only did I bookmark it, but I made them the very next morning.

I have this cute little mini donut pan that I bought years ago from King Arthur Flour.  I've only used it two or three times.  It was feeling unloved and getting dusty.  I have to admit, I thought it was more of a pain than it was worth because getting the batter in the wells was messy and the donuts just didn't take the right shape.  Well, after reading a tip to use a pastry bag to pipe the batter in to fill the wells- I have a whole new love for this pan!  Be prepared to see a lot more donuts- baked, not fried!

Add a bit of glaze, some sprinkles, and this made one quick, yummy breakfast with a lot of smiling kids.

I found the recipe for the donuts on Handle the Heat blog and I used my own glaze.

Gingerbread Donuts:

Oven: 350

1 cup flour
1/4 tsp baking soda
3/4 tsp baking powder
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp ginger
1/8 tsp ground cloves
1/8 tsp nutmeg
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 egg
1/4 cup applesauce
1 TBSP milk
2 TBSP butter, melted


1 TBSP butter
1/2 cup confectioner's sugar
1/4 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp vanilla
4-6 tsp milk

1) Preheat oven.

2) In medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda, baking powder, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, nutmeg, salt, and brown sugar.

3) Stir in egg, applesauce, milk, and melted butter until combined.  Scrape sides of bowl, give one more mix. Put batter into a pastry bag fitted with large circle tip or use a ziploc bag and cut a hole in the bottom corner.

4) Lightly grease the donut pan. Squeeze the dough into circle shape around each well in the pan.  Dough should not be more than halfway up pan.  -If you don't have a donut pan, I'm sure these would make great muffins.

5) Bake 8-10 minutes until toothpick comes out clean.

6) Make the glaze while the donuts are baking, cream butter with confectioner's sugar, add in the cinnamon and vanilla.  Slowly add milk, try to mix and avoid lumps.  You want to add milk until you reach a consistency of thin pudding.

7) Dip each donut in the glaze, place on a plate and put sprinkles on top if you want.

This would be a fun breakfast to have out for the kids on Christmas morning.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Busy Sewing: Crinkly Baby Play Mat

Do you have one of these (or do you know someone who does?):
Then, this post is for you. This idea has been brewing in my head for a while now.  My mom got a bunch of wacky baby toys when she visited us in Japan several years ago.  When Maeve was born, she gave me one, it looked just like a piece of cloth with the design of a Japanese newspaper.  I thought it was going to be just a soothing soft toy.  BUT, then we opened it...

This has got to be one of her favorite toys!  It is crinkly, lightweight, easy to hold, chewable, all the things a baby could ask for and more.  I have been wanting to have one of her other crinkly toys take one for the team, so I could see what was on the inside doing the crinkling.

Well, the other day, I was unpacking a box of clothes I ordered online, she was having a ball grabbing, shaking, and tossing the plastic bags of clothes.  The lightbulb went off- reuse plastic shopping bags and sew them in between fabric.  Yes, at that instant, I abandoned unpacking the box, went into my stash found two cute girly half yards of fabric, got a giant plastic shopping bag I was no longer using and...(yes it is conveniently a bag from my FAVORITE craft store from Japan):
I laid the two fabrics on top of each other, with the right sides together, then I placed the shopping bag on top.   I trimmed around the edges so the fabric was the same size as the bag.  Then I pinned them together.
I sewed around the edges (bag could be on top or bottom while sewing, will work fine either way, your preference):
I left a four inch gap to right side out the fabric:
Once fabric was inverted, I fold the fabric in at the gaps and pinned it, then I topstitched over it and around the whole mat to give it a finished look:
The whole thing took maybe 30 minutes.
How fun would this be for a homemade Christmas gift?  You can make it as large or small as you want, I think it would be fun to do one with bubble wrap on the inside, or long like a runway for the baby to crawl on. You can even put the bag between two old pieces of cut up clothes to be totally green!  Happy sewing!

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Busy Cooking: Spiced Pecans

I had never had spiced nuts until about 6 years ago.  We had a Christmas party before we moved to Japan, and one of our friends brought them over.  They were so delicious and addicting, I couldn't stop eating them.  I got the recipe from her and tucked it away, never to attempt to make them on my own.

This Thanksgiving, my brother, who likes nuts, was coming to visit.  I wanted to make these nuts because I knew that he would really like them.  I couldn't find my friend's recipe, so I resorted to my trusty America's Test Kitchen TV Show Cookbook for a spiced pecan recipe.  Their recipe called for Bourbon, I didn't have any and even if I did, I don't really like rum, so I left it out.  These nuts were soooo delicious and easy to make, and with the 2 tsp vanilla in the glaze, they smelled great too.  I made them four days before Thanksgiving, I had to hide them so Hazel and I wouldn't eat them all.  They stayed fresh and crisp right up until the day after Thanksgiving, when I polished them off.

If you're going to a party this month or anytime really and need something simple, quick, and sure to be a hit, try these!  In total, they took ten minutes to make.  We liked them so much, I have 2.5 lbs in the freezer waiting to be glazed!

Spiced Pecans:

Oven:  350'

2 cups pecan halves

Spice mix:
2 TBSP sugar
3/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/8 tsp ground cloves
1/8 tsp allspice (I omitted because I didn't have any)

1 TBSP unsalted butter
2 tsp vanilla
1 tsp brown sugar

1) Preheat oven to 350', place pecans on baking sheet that is lined with parchment paper (for easier clean up) in an even layer.  Bake in oven for 8 minutes.

2) While pecans are in the oven, prepare the spice mix by mixing all the ingredients together in a large bowl, set aside.

3) Make the glaze- add all the ingredients to a medium pan and whisk constantly over medium-high heat until is reaches a boil.  Stir in the pecans and continue cooking until almost all the liquid has evaporated, about 1-2 minutes.

4) Toss the glazed pecans into the bowl with the spice mix.  Place spiced pecans back on baking sheet to cool before eating.  Store in an airtight container- 5-7 days.