Thursday, December 18, 2014

Easy Almond Roca


One of Mario's favorite treats, particularly this time of year, is almond roca. I'm a wackadoodle and don't care for browned/burnt sugary things like caramel and toffee, so I was only passingly familiar with this confection. Apparently his mom used to make it for his dad, and the store-bought stuff just wouldn't do.

I'm nothing if not determined, so a few years back I set about making almond roca from scratch. I settled on a recipe, which seemed easy enough, and went to work. The end result earned rave reviews, and almond roca has now become a holiday mainstay in our house.

Each year I make up a batch, which usually lasts well into January. Only once have I had a (sort of) dud on my hands, and that was when I chickened out and took the mixture off the stove too early. (It was still good, just lacked that crunchy then melt-in-your-mouth magical quality.)


Easy Almond Roca
(adapted from this recipe)

1 lb salted butter (use the real thing!)
2 cups white sugar
2 tbsp light corn syrup
6 tbsp water
1 1/2 cups finely chopped raw almonds
1 bag milk chocolate chips

1/ melt the butter in a large pot over medium heat
2/ add corn syrup, sugar and water to pot and stir to combine; insert a candy thermometer
3/ stirring constantly, heat until the mixture is the color of cardboard (see photos below for reference), approximately 20 minutes (for me, that is usually around 255 degrees, but don't exceed 290 degrees); be patient—the temperature will plateau a couple times
4/ remove from heat and stir in 1 cup of the chopped almonds
5/ turn the mixture onto a greased cookie sheet with edges and gently tilt until evenly distributed
5/ once the sugar mixture has begun to harden (but is still hot), melt the chocolate chips in a small saucepan over low heat until smooth
6/ pour melted chocolate over sugar mixture and spread evenly
7/ sprinkle remaining 1/2 cup of almonds over the melted chocolate; allow chocolate to harden and candy to cool completely (1-2 hours, but I let it sit overnight; in a pinch, you can throw it in the fridge to expedite the process)
8/ pick up an edge of the candy and allow it to break in natural patterns, then break the larger chunks into smaller ones [Note: Approximately 1.5" pieces is what I prefer. Also, I like the more natural shapes that occur from randomly breaking, but you can score the candy prior to adding the chocolate if you want something more uniform.]
9/ store in an airtight container


These make a great gift for friends, family, and neighbors. Just stack pieces in festive cellophane bags and finish with ribbon.

Enjoy!

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

whosits & whatsits

Objects that have made life a little kinder lately:


These holiday cards, for accomplishing the impossible: address change + Christmas card + year-in-review letter + family photos. (+ pre-addressed envelopes!) Our Christmas cards aren't usually this involved, but we've had a big year.


These terrariums, which hang in the kitchen window, for making dish duty feel a little less like a chore.


The Pacific Northwest's excellent hard cider offerings. 


These iced lemon cookies, for being a universal crowd-pleaser. I whipped up a big batch and sent them off to friends and our new neighbors.


These tonics, for taking the edge off my allergies, shortening my cold, and bolstering my immune system. 


This jade plant, for adding a little cheer (and a pop of green) to the dining room.


This face, which spends its evenings studying the Christmas lights.


This woodland wrapping paper, for being exactly what I was looking for.


This Tummy Tamer tea (left), which makes my grumbling belly feel so much better. (Husband is obsessed with the Circulatory Blend.) Every night after Kiddo goes to bed, we drink tea and watch an episode of Scandal. It's a rather lovely ritual.


This mini Christmas tree, for 1// satisfying my love of white trees, and 2// standing in for our big tree this year.


This stove top potpourri, for making our house smell so festive.

Also, yay for the little guys! Those small businesses and creative minds who make products I want to own, consume, and give. Natalie mentioned Kokosnoot, a fledgling coconut milk company, on her blog last month. They have 8 days left on their Indiegogo fundraiser. (If you donate $45, you get a copy of Natalie's book + other goodies.) Kiddo is totally dairy-free, and I have to avoid it in most forms, so we drink a lot of coconut milk around these parts. Natural, well-made products + hard working small businesses are super important!

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

DIY Mini Jar Ornaments

 

When Kiddo was in elementary school, I started the tradition of making a yearly ornament. At first it was a solution to the What do I give the teachers and staff? conundrum, but ended up being so much more: It has allowed me to reconnect with Christmas.

We work very hard to focus on quality over quantity this time of year, and try to keep that in mind when purchasing for others. Giving a handmade ornament allows me to express myself creatively, meanwhile creating a keepsake that will get unwrapped and placed on the tree year after year.

I like the idea that I am gifting memories as opposed to something destined for the donation box.

If I had my druthers, every ornament I make would be some sort of diorama. I love peeking through a window into a miniature world. And while I try to mix things up, a theme has certainly emerged: globes. Last year were the Harry Potter ornaments, and the year before that were the bell jar dioramas. (Can I get a hear, hear! for improved photography skills?)

This year I present to you mini jar globes. I had a lot of supplies left over from the bell jar ornaments, so all I had to buy were the jars and a few more bottle brush trees. Mario punched holes in the lids and used a Dremel tool to eliminate any sharp edges on the inside of the lid that could snag the baker's twine loop. I finished them off by punching out a 1" circle of Christmas cardstock, writing our names and the year, and adhering it to the bottom of the jar with a dot of glue. Note: I used E6000 as opposed to hot glue since I was adhering the items to glass and wanted the bond to withstand temperature fluctuations. (Supply list below.)

The end result was simple yet sweet:


Thursday, December 11, 2014

Working through a case of the bah humbugs.


Oh, hey there!

How is life for you on this day, exactly two weeks before Christmas?

Anyone else feeling particularly nostalgic, introspective, and reflective? Or all three (like yours truly)? It's that time of year, I think. When you consider where you are and where you want to be. What kind of Christmas you want to celebrate and how you want to spend your pennies.

Last year we buckled down and stuck to a budget. We informed family and friends that we wanted to keep it simple. We worked to eliminate the meaningless stuff that serves to complicate our lives and crowd our home. And while not everyone respected our wants and wishes, most did. That year will always stand out as decidedly peaceful.

This year we lost our footing. I chalk it up to two things:

1// We had a big year and I didn't have the mental fortitude to fight the good fight. Although I still believe in the cause, living with less and simplifying, I decided to pick my battles. As a result, I have noticed that the unnecessary holiday stress I sought to avoid by simplifying has crept back into my life. Which suggests that taking a stance, albeit a big energy-expending one, prevented all the little stresses that trickle downstream. When you simplify, the money worries, resentments, and gift equality hangups go away. It seems I traded a big issue for many smaller ones. Lesson learned.

2// We are having an out-of-town Christmas. This year we are taking a trek up to Montana to spend the holiday week with Mario's family. This is the first time we've spent Christmas Day with others in 10 years, so we were ill-prepared when it came to approaching gift giving. I feel pressure to put a present under the tree for everyone (in addition to buying said tree), and any sort of balance was lost in the process. Add to that a last minute plan to organize gifting that was poorly communicated, and I have total confusion on my hands. When you live halfway across the country, sending a small family gift feels like enough... so why doesn't it when presented in person?

Mario and I are fundamentally different when it comes to Christmas. He cares little for budgets and worries not about an overabundance of gifts. The more the merrier. I love that about him, his spirit of giving, but I often feel alone in my fight for less. We have yet to find the perfect middle ground, and this was simply not the year to try and find it.

I'm also finding myself a tad anxious about celebrating with others. Kiddo is getting older, and our Christmases as a family of three are feeling numbered. I have a confession to make: I'm not sure I want to share it with other people. That introverted, fiercely nostalgic part of me wants Christmas morning all to myself. Just the boys and me, hot drink in hand, Christmas tunes in the background, watching each other open our stockings and gifts. To me, those precious hours are sacred and private and meant for just the three of us. Oh, the selfishness I feel!

In the end, putting myself out there, although uncomfortable, is good. It's about compromise and embracing change. Acknowledging these feelings is an important part of the process. The process of how we approach Christmas (socially and financially), and how I choose to view my situation. Because attitude is a choice.

Instead of focusing on what overwhelms me, I'm finding ways to lessen the stress of the holidays. It's not too late to regain my composure! Kiddo and I made the bold choice to forgo our Christmas tree this year. There have been pangs of uncertainty, sure, but it is mostly a relief. With Mario in SoCal working, and the holiday spent elsewhere, the thought of putting it up this weekend, just to take it down after we get back was too much. Instead, we've chosen to decorate the outside of the house and create a festive mantle. It's good to let yourself off the hook now and again, a realization that comes more often with age and life experience (thank goodness!).



Tomorrow Mario returns from his business trip. He's been gone since last Saturday, and whenever these things involve weekends they feel especially long. I've been fighting a cold bug, and feeling off, and Kiddo seems ready for the holiday break. He's weary in the subtle way a mother can tell.

And while it's easy to stay in all day, wrapping presents and binge-watching shows on Netflix, the real world calls to me. It is telling me to get out of my head and my funk. To shake the stink off and enjoy the magic that comes with the holidays. There are window displays, cozy sweaters and hot drinks to be enjoyed! Wallowing is quite unattractive and leads to forehead wrinkles, I remind myself.

So goes the story of how I let the noise in. Again. Don't do it. Learn from me.

Also, here are some wise words on simplifying Christmas. I can't tell you how many times she has written a post on the very day I needed to read it most.





Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Bacon Brussel Sprouts


Kiddo has always been a funny creature when it comes to food. (I've often wondered how two people who can and will eat darn near anything could have bred such a persnickety child.)

Though terribly picky throughout most of his life, he has always gravitated toward obscure, less kid-friendly foods. It defies reason that a 6-year-old, who ate precisely four things, and only if prepared just so, would not only beg for fiddleheads at the grocery store, but declare them to be one of the best things he'd ever tasted. (It took a little research on my part to figure out how to prepare them. Apparently they can be toxic if not cooked properly? Just what a mother wants to hear. But when you have a picky eater, you'll do just about anything to add a little variety to the dinner table.)

Another of his favorites is Brussels sprouts. A few years ago we got a couple stocks in our CSA, leaving me a tad stumped when it came to preparing them. There's the steaming method, which leaves them flavorless and soggy, but I was looking for something more sophisticated. And so I took to The Google, as any inquisitive cook does.

We settled on Emeril Lagasse's Bacon Brussels Sprouts recipe and the rest, they say, is history. These Brussels sprouts have become a mainstay in our house, and have even graced the Thanksgiving table a time or two. Any leftovers we may have don't last more than a day or so. (They've been an after school snack request more than once. Truth.) I'm a fan of having a collection of standbys that everyone likes. In fact, that pretty much sums up how I roll in the kitchen.

I've made this enough that I no longer need to consult a recipe, but the same fundamental ingredients are always present: fresh Brussels sprouts (duh), bacon, and thinly sliced onion (red, yellow, Spanish... they all work just fine). Slice the bacon/cook in a large pan/remove the bacon/add the onion and cook until caramelized/throw in the sprouts (and any other veggies you want to include)/cook until the sprouts are crunchy but not raw (I cover the pan for a few minutes to get the right amount of softness)/add the bacon back in and serve.

Kiddo usually eats them straight up, but I've added dried cranberries, (extra) garlic, almonds, sunflower seeds, and a variety of other additions to please the adult palate. Most recently, I crumbled some really good blue cheese over the top and served it for lunch.


This makes a great side, but we've also had it as a main course. It's that good.

Next up: learning how to make his newest obsession, Borscht. Help? 

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Easy Peasy Cinnamon Rolls + Leftover Pumpkin Puree


It's a well known fact that no single recipe uses precisely one can of pumpkin. And because I can't bear to toss it down the drain, I inevitably put it in a container that gets pushed to the back of the fridge until The Great Clean Out, where I find it covered in fuzz. It's a ritual I've become quite acquainted with.

Occasionally, in a fit of waste not want not, I seek to find a home for that superfluous pumpkin. (I believe in moderate year-round pumpkin consumption, you see.)

First, there's Pumpkin Pie Oatmeal, a perennial favorite:


Then, there was the discovery of these delicious nuggets:


Occasionally I get a hankering to master a new baking skill. Most recently, it was the overwhelming desire to make cinnamon rolls from scratch on Thanksgiving morning. As if there isn't enough to be done on the biggest food day of the year. The boys would wake up to the smell of cinnamon, pecans and pumpkin warming in the oven and sing my praises throughout the land. Naturally.

Cinnamon rolls are a notoriously time-consuming venture, says everyone. Until I laid my eyes on the words cinnamon roll + one bowl and simultaneously thought genius! and too good to be true!. The Minimalist Baker's One Bowl Banana Bread Cinnamon Rolls recipe is genuinely one bowl and as easy as it looks. (Aside from a little freakout over whether I bloomed the yeast properly, things went off without a hitch.)

I followed the recipe exactly, save for two tweaks: I used 1/2 cup canned pumpkin in place of the mashed bananas and spread a thin layer of pumpkin puree in lieu of sliced banana. (I'm not a fan of bananas, so this spared me the cringe-worthy process of peeling, mashing and slicing them.)

I completed the steps, up to the point of baking, before covering with plastic wrap and popping them in the fridge overnight. While the oven preheated the next morning, I let them warm to room temperature and puff up a bit more.

The glaze was simply 1 cup of powdered sugar whisked with two tablespoons of coconut milk drizzled over the top.

These gems earned rave reviews and a permanent spot in my recipe binder. I think applesauce + diced apples + walnuts would be another tasty variation. Yum.


(P.S. Dental floss is the best when it comes to cutting symmetrical cinnamon rolls, says me. First I used a ruler and created indents in the dough every 1.5" to use as a guide. Then I circled the roll with floss and pinch off the slices. Easy peasy. Try it.)