CHRISTMAS COUNTDOWN #7 — NUTCRACKERS AND SWEDISH NUTS

With the holidays, comes an inevitable invasion of nutcrackers.  They stare blankly ahead, grinning while gracing tables and guarding doorways.

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When my children were young, we took them to see the Houston Ballet’s annual production of The Nutcracker.  My 5-year old daughter looked beautiful in her flowing fancy dress, and my 3-year old son looked precious in his tweed blazer — I was so proud of my young family.  The sets were gorgeous, the costumes stunning, and . . . my kids were just too young to appreciate it.  They fidgeted and whispered questions (in fairness, so were half the other kids in the theater).  We could sense that the people in front of us were mildly irritated.  At intermission, the redneck sitting in front of us turned around and said something like, “Could you control your kids?  I paid $______ for these tickets.”  (Doesn’t he know it’s impolite to talk about money, and besides, he probably used a Groupon.)  We took the kids out to the lobby and got them a drink and some candy, and went back for the second act.  Unfortunately, my son was still fidgety, and as he squirmed, he dropped one of his Skittles and it rolled down the theater floor — ping ping ping.  Then he did it again — ping ping ping.  Before the redneck’s head popped off, I picked up my son to move him to my lap, and during the transfer, the entire bag of Skittles emptied out and rolled down the theater floor.  It sounded like soft rain — ch ch ch ch ch.  At which point my husband stood up and said “Get up, we’re leaving.”  Now, when my friends tell me they are going to The Nutcracker, I have to try very hard not to laugh.  Y’all have fun.

But just because I don’t enjoy The Nutcracker doesn’t mean that I don’t like cracked nuts.  A few years ago my neighbor brought us Swedish Nuts as a holiday treat.  We loved these nuts!  I hounded her for the recipe, and I am happy to be able share it.  (Most recipes for Swedish Nuts on the interwebs use regular sugar, but I think the brown sugar really helps make these special).  These are easy and really delicious (how could they not be with all that butter and sugar) — be sure to make an extra batch for yourself!

SWEDISH NUTS
Print
Recipe type: Appetizers, Snacks
Author:
Ingredients
  • ½ cup butter
  • 3 egg whites
  • 1 cup light brown sugar
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 1 pound pecan halves
Instructions
  1. Preheat oven to 300 degrees.
  2. Beat egg whites with an electric mixture until stiff. Stir in brown sugar and salt, mixing until completely combined. Add the pecans and stir until all nuts are completely coated.
  3. Place butter on a cookie sheet, and place in oven until butter is melted. Pour nuts onto cookie sheet and bake for 45 minutes, stirring every 15 minutes. Remove from oven and allow to cool on cookie sheet, breaking up any nuts that have stuck together. Can be stored in refrigerator or freezer in an airtight container.

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Stir until all the pecans are coated

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Ready for to go in the oven

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After 15 minutes

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After 30 minutes

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Done!

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A perfect holiday treat

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHRISTMAS COUNTDOWN #6 — CARE PACKAGES

Care packages are a welcome way to spread cheer this holiday season.  College students studying for finals are obvious recipients.  Military personnel stationed far from home are another excellent choice.  Wounded warriors shouldn’t be forgotten this time of year, or ever for that matter, and a surprise care package would be a great way to let one know that they remain in your thoughts.  Know anyone hospitalized this season?  A care package would surely brighten their day.  Perhaps you have friends that recently moved, and would appreciate a care package of goodies to remind them of home.  Think  of them as random acts of kindness.

Care packages can be as simple or elaborate as you decide to make them — it really is about the thought.  Try to make them personal, and add in some holiday items.  I just finished preparing few for college students getting ready for finals, and assembling them definitely put me in a holiday mood.  Included among the goodies in the various packages are snacks, peppermint-striped socks, light up ski caps, hot cocoa mix and mini marshmallows, mugs, pens, and a holiday movie.  Other ideas are paperback books, holiday window clings, fleece throw blankets, holiday t-shirts or leggings, and of course, homemade cookies.

IMG_5518An assortment of snacks and holiday-themed goodies

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Surely you know someone who would be surprised and delighted to receive a care package this holiday season.  Have fun putting one together, and bring an unexpected smile to someone’s face.

CHRISTMAS COUNTDOWN #5 — REINDEER

Most people are not aware that Santa actually has 12 reindeer.  If you listen carefully to the song “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” you’ll hear them all named.  As the song goes, “there’s Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen, Comet and Cupid and Donner and Blitzen.”  That’s 8.  Then there’s ol’ Rudolph — that makes 9.   Next is Olive, who is the bitchiest of the reindeer — “Olive the other reindeer used to laugh and call him names.”  That makes 10.  Howe is number 11 — “Then Howe the reindeer loved him.”  Finally, there’s Andy — “Andy shouted out with glee.”  🙂

I found loads of cute and easy ideas for making reindeer cookies and other holiday treats.  I haven’t included the many beautiful iced ones I saw, because those require a fair amount of skill and patience, and well, ’nuff said.  Perhaps one of these might inspire you to get all reindeer crafty this season.

These reindeer cookies made using an upside down gingerbread man cookie cutter are so clever:

A sweet and simple sugar cookie reindeer (and other cute ideas) from Sarah’s Sweets & Treats: cookies2Chubby little peanut butter reindeer cookies, from the now defunct Ladies Home Journal (RIP print media): cookies3 And another idea for peanut butter reindeer from Bakergirl: cookies5 Nutter Butter reindeer from Edesia’s Notebook: cookies4Take those Nutter Butter reindeer to the next level with a dip in chocolate, from Candiquik: cookies7 How about these clever chocolate-covered biscuit reindeer with Teddy Graham antlers, from Smart Party Planning: cookies12 These gingerbread and sugar cookie pieced reindeer cookies from The Bearfoot Baker are a little more work, but worth the effort, don’t you think? cookies11

Meringue reindeer from I Heart Kitchen are almost too cute to eat (I said almost):

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Oreos can be used to create adorable reindeer cookie pops, like these from Easybaked:

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But reindeer imagination isn’t limited to cookies.  For example, you could make chocolate-dipped marshmallow reindeer pops, like these from Just a Taste:

Or reindeer Rice Krispie treats:

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Savory little reindeer cheese snacks will get a few grins:

Cute Food for Kids

And finally, the piece de resistance, the reindeer bacon cheeseball (posted, unfortunately, without attribution on Pinterest):

Seeing these reindeer goodies definitely made me smile, and I’m sure the family would love to find any of these at our Christmas gathering.

I’ll leave you with one more Christmas joke — this one will “sleigh” you.  🙂

Q:  What does Christmas have in common with your job?

A:  You do all the work and the fat guy in the suit gets all the credit.

CHRISTMAS COUNTDOWN #4 — SOCIAL MEDIA

To spread a little digital cheer this holiday season, try being social on social media.  In the coming days you’ll be seeing LOTS of photos on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc. of kids with Santa, Christmas trees and holiday decorations, family celebrations, holiday foods, pets with antlers and jingle bells, and the Elf on the Shelf doing all kinds of naughty things.  Go ahead and “like” or “favorite” them.  It doesn’t cost a thing, and it brings a little joy to the person that posted the photo.  If you’re really feeling charitable, go ahead and leave a comment.  Ditch the political rants, the obscenities, the challenges to post something “for just 1 hour,” the inane quizzes (“what Christmas cookie are you?  I’m gingersnaps!!”), and other such negativity this season, and post some of your own holiday photos.

Here’s one of my holiday posts — what’s not to “like”?  🙂

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CHRISTMAS COUNTDOWN #3 — CRANBERRIES

Cranberries!  Big, bouncy, bright red cranberries!

cranberry harvest  oceanspray.com

Harvested between mid-September and mid-November, cranberries are at their peak right now for color and flavor.  Their ruby red color makes them a favorite for holiday decorating, cooking, and baking.

A cranberry wreath looks stunning anywhere you hang it.  I originally saw the idea about 20 years ago in a Martha Stewart publication, and you can see her making one here.  (Spoiler alert:  the video is really boring, and her wreath turns out beautifully.  Doh.).  Mindy at Our Humble Abode declares making a cranberry wreath “the dumbest idea ever,” but I think her wreath is gorgeous and entirely worth the 1-1/2 hours she spent making it:cranberry wreathIn a similar vein (i.e., styrofoam and cranberries), you could also create striking cranberry topiaries:

Adding cranberries to floral arrangements and glass candleholders adds a brilliant splash of holiday color at very little cost:

Kids will love stringing cranberries (well, maybe not my kids) to create gorgeous garlands (use waxed dental floss to make stringing easy):

It takes no time to sugar cranberries, and they make a beautiful garnish for holiday dishes, especially with a few mint leaves tucked in around them.

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 Find directions for making them at ourbestbites.com

Look at some of the elegant ways you can use sugared cranberries:

This year I’m once again baking loaves of cranberry orange bread to share.  The recipe has both fresh and dried cranberries, orange juice and zest, and pecans.  It’s just sweet enough to balance the tartness of the cranberries, and the buttermilk keeps it moist.  The recipe makes 6 mini loaves or 2 regular loaves, which makes it a great recipe for sharing.

CRANBERRY ORANGE QUICK BREAD
Print
Recipe type: Breads and Muffins
Author:
Ingredients
  • 4 cups flour
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda
  • 1-1/2 cups buttermilk
  • ½ cup orange juice
  • 1 tablespoon grated orange zest
  • 12 tablespoons (1-1/2 sticks) butter, melted and cooled
  • 2 eggs
  • 3 cups fresh cranberries, coarsely chopped
  • 1 cup pecan halves, coarsely chopped
  • ⅔ cup dried cranberries, coarsely chopped
Instructions
  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray 6 mini loaf pans, or 2 regular loaf pans, or 1 bundt pan with cooking spray and set aside.
  2. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, and baking soda.
  3. In a medium bowl, whisk together the buttermilk, orange juice, zest, and melted butter. Whisk in eggs until thoroughly combined.
  4. Pour the wet ingredients over the dry ingredients and stir just until combined. Gently fold in cranberries and nuts.
  5. Divide batter among prepared pans, filling each approximately ¾ full.
  6. Bake for approximately 45 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. The top of the bread will be golden, and the bread will have risen and the edges will be just pulling away from the sides of the pan.
  7. Allow to cool, then wrap in plastic and let sit at room temperature several hours (preferably overnight) before slicing and serving.

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Hot out of the oven, and they smell so good!

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Delicious giving

CHRISTMAS COUNTDOWN #2 — GINGERSNAPS

Add a little spice to your holiday celebrations with gingersnaps.  And if you really want to experience a holiday treat, order a tin of crisp, spicy gingersnaps from The Center, a private not-for-profit agency serving persons with developmental and intellectual disabilities (Houston readers can usually purchase these at the Eastside Farmers Market as well).  The sale of the gingersnaps began as a volunteer effort led by Alicia Lee, whose son and nephew were residents at The Center’s Willow River Farms.  According to the website, the request for gingersnaps came from Barbara Bush, and Ms. Lee set about testing recipes for months in her quest for a crisp, crunchy, spicy cookie.  After many test batches, they sent a sample to Barbara Bush, who loved them, and the rest is gingersnap history.  Each gold tin is decorated with a hand-pressed and gilded ornament, made by one of the Center’s clients.  These gingersnaps are crunchy, buttery, spicy, and addictive.

If you’d like to make your own gingersnaps or ginger cookies, there are a million recipes out there.  My personal favorite recipe is this one, and I bake tons of them every year.

Although the gingersnaps are wonderful all by themselves, they are even better served with Amazing Pumpkin Dip.  We discovered this years ago at a small grocery store that had samples out of various products you could order for the holidays.  They called it Amazing Pumpkin Dip and had copies of the recipe printed for anyone who wanted one.  What was truly amazing was that we were not asked to leave, because my young son ate at least half of the bowl of dip while I was shopping.  (He tended to view free samples as his own personal buffet.)

If you need to bring a dish to a holiday party, or are looking for something to serve at one of your own, gingersnaps and pumpkin dip are a crowd-pleaser.

AMAZING PUMPKIN DIP
Print
Recipe type: Appetizers, Snacks, Desserts
Author:
Ingredients
  • 8-ounce package cream cheese, softened
  • 10 ounces pumpkin butter
  • ¼ cup sugar
  • ½ teaspoon vanilla
  • 8-ounce container frozen whipped topping, thawed
  • Gingersnaps, for serving
Instructions
  1. Place cream cheese in a medium bowl. Using an electric mixer, beat cream cheese until smooth and creamy. Add pumpkin butter, sugar, and vanilla, and beat until well-blended. Gently fold in whipped topping. Keep refrigerated until ready to serve. Serve with gingersnaps for dipping.

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CHRISTMAS COUNTDOWN #1 — HOLIDAY PLANTS

It’s here!  The holiday season is officially here!  Tag Sale Tastes is counting down to Christmas with daily posts (updated for 2017) containing simple ideas to brighten the holidays for you and those around you.  (Of course, I’d love it if along the way you’d share your ideas with me.) I’d like to think of this Christmas Countdown as a sort of blog Advent Calendar.

According to my research the word “advent” is Latin in origin, meaning “coming toward.”  Christians were so awed by the importance of Christmas and what it celebrated, that they needed a period beforehand to prepare for it, giving themselves time to reflect on it as well as teach their children about the significance of it.  In the late 1800s, a German woman made an Advent Calendar for her son Gerhard Lang that consisted of 24 candies stuck onto a sheet of cardboard.  As an adult, Gerhard remembered how much he loved receiving his Advent Calendar and how it reminded him every day that Christmas was coming.  In 1908, he and a partner printed what is believed to be the first printed Advent Calendar with a little colored picture for each day in Advent.  Later they added the little windows that are still popular today.  The first Sunday of Advent varies from year to year, falling somewhere between November 27 and December 3 — Advent Calendars compromise for this by beginning on December 1.

For the first day of the Christmas Countdown, I’m going natural — holiday plants are an inexpensive and elegant way to decorate for the season.

Poinsettias are everywhere!  Pick up a few and instantly brighten your surroundings.  One of my favorite varieties is called Winter Rose — you can see why:

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I found these two stunning varieties this year:

An evergreen wreath is another easy way to usher in the holidays.  Wreaths have been a Christmas tradition for centuries.  The word ‘wreath’ is derived from the old English word “writhen,” meaning “to writhe” or “to twist.”   The circular shape of the Christmas wreath, with no beginning or end, is said to symbolize Christ’s eternal love and life never ending.  I got a beautiful one at Costco this year for $14.99 — it smells so fresh and pine-y, and looks so pretty on my door:

If you are lucky (or unfortunate) enough — all depends on how you look at it — to have mistletoe growing in a nearby tree, snip a branch and hang some with a ribbon.  You never know, you might get lucky!  (Unfortunately, mistletoe grows in the Chinese lace bark elms in front of my house, and every year a group of very loud neighbors wanders down and throws all sorts of things at the tree to try to knock some mistletoe loose.  Neither I nor my dogs find this holiday tradition amusing.)

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Rosemary Christmas trees are available at grocery stores and garden centers.  In addition to looking festive, they smell great, and you can snip a sprig here and there to use in cooking and baking.  My neighbor surprised me with one the other day, and I love to pat it when I walk by to release its fragrance:

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You could also force some amaryllis or paperwhite bulbs.  They, too, are widely available in garden centers and grocery stores, and kits for growing them can often be found at Target, Walmart, and other similar retailers.  Look for big fat bulbs with shoots and/or buds poking out.  If you plant some now, you can have gorgeous blooms by Christmas,  (Directions for forcing the paperwhites are here.)  Some people have luck planting them in their yard and getting them to rebloom year after year.  I am not one of those people.
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Paperwhites getting ready to put out buds

Fragrant paperwhite flowers

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Striking  amaryllis getting ready to show its colors

Amaryllis and paperwhite bulbs also make lovely, budget-friendly holiday gifts.  If you hurry, you too can have pretty blooms for the holidays.

There’s lots of other plants and natural elements that you can use to decorate for the holidays — hollies, berry branches, magnolia leaves, white tallow berries, evergreens, pine cones, cinnamon sticks, birch branches, just to name a few.  Ditch the silks, and use your imagination to combine natural elements to create beautiful holiday arrangements.