Sunday, November 29, 2015

Visions of Sugar Plums: Nutcracker Sweets

 Without a doubt candies and confections play a sweet and starring role in the celebration of the Christmas season. Ironically one of the most oft mentioned holiday treats is the rather mysterious, but delightfully named sugar plum. 
     Generations of children have read of little ones drifting off to sleep dreaming of the confections in the classic Night before Christmas poem or perhaps seen the magical Sugar Plum Fairy dance across the stage in the famous Nutcracker ballet, but, many, myself included, hadn't a clue as to what exactly a sugar plum was.
images from the Graphics Fairy
      While some quick research revealed some conflicting ideas, the overall consensus was that these treats, which did not contain plums, were based on the sugar coated seeds and exotic spices called confits popular in Europe in the 1600's. Painstakingly made with layers of sugar syrup, they were a luxury for the wealthy and royals until later advances in production made them more readily and inexpensively available. 
      Fast forward to today and you can find a myriad of recipes for this centuries old treat, most including a combination of dried fruits such as dates and apricots, nuts, honey, sugar and assorted spices.
     I decided to whip up an easier, if not completely historically accurate version, and spruce them up with some colorful chocolate and a little sparkle.
I used
1 1/4 cup assorted mixed dried fruits
I bought  a package of mixed fruits including
dried apricots, golden raisins, peaches apples and cranberries
 but any of your  favorites will do
1 1/4 cup almonds
4 tbs honey
spices: 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon, dash nutmeg
chocolate melts, pink, white or lavender
assorted sprinkles

if desired "toast" almonds in a dry skillet for a minute or two to bring out flavor, stirring constantly
Give fruit and nuts a quick whirl in a food processor until finely minced. 
In bowl stir in honey and spices. 
Roll into balls and set on a tray lined with wax paper, chill until firm- you may need to moisten hands often to prevent sticking
Although healthier than many holiday treats, they sadly don't rank among the prettiest. 
To the rescue, a light coat of chocolate melts and some sprinkle magic. Simply melt chocolate according to instructions and spoon over sugar plums. Garnish with sprinkles or dust with powdered sugar and let cool completely

 I added some wintery Nutcracker themed decor and DIY party favors.
A mini nutcracker and royal mouse hold court under a glass dome.

Sugar Plum Fairy Wands 
I used:
A set of wands craft kit 
snowflake ornaments 
(both from dollar store)
assorted scrapbook paper
ribbon, trim, odds and ends
I simply spray painted some fun foam wands
Images from the Graphics Fairy (Love her!)
cut and glued some images

 and had fun decorating

With the table set it's time to relax with a cup of tea. Sugar plums make an elegant snack after the watching the ballet
(even if it's just at home on TV)

Wishing all our readers 
a Magical Holiday Season

Monday, November 23, 2015

Chalkboard Cookies: Quick and Easy Holiday Treat

As someone with limited baking skills, I always get a slight twinge of anxiety when, as the holidays approach, a deluge of fabulous cookie recipes appear online, festive cookie exchange parties are planned and magazines feature picture perfect treats on their glossy covers. 
An avid consumer of sweets, I ironically never mastered the particular art of these bite size delights. Of course this doesn't stop me from poring over recipes during on a recent search, I found dozens of fabulous ideas for the most delightful chalkboard cookies!
As expected, most of these beautifully made cookies required a scratch recipe, fondant or carefully crafted royal icing. How, I pondered could I whip up a just-about-as-cute but simpler semi scratch version?
With some trial and error, store-bought cookies, some vanilla and black chocolate melts (leftover from Halloween), I concocted a fast and easy adaptation of these trendy treats. 
With chalkboard "everything" still going strong in the world of decor and crafts, these cookies go with a variety of themes and can be customized for any time of year including, Thanksgiving, or Christmas, or make a sweet gift for teachers.

You'll Need
Any plain flat round cookies 
(I used sugar and chocolate from my local supermarket)
black and white chocolate melts
plain white and wax paper
confectioner's sugar
Wiltons white cookie icing
fine paint brush

Lay out plain white or parchment paper and using black chocolate melt trace out cookie shapes, spacing an inch or so apart.
Cover with wax paper so tracing is clearly visible
Melt black chocolate according to instructions. 
Gently spoon chocolate onto wax paper in center of traced circles, leaving border around inside edge
While still warm, gently press the cookies into chocolate
Let cool completely 
peel cookies carefully from paper and turn over 
the chocolate should have a smooth surface
break a few white chocolate rounds in pieces to use as "chalk"
and write on cookie. 
you can warm (but don't melt) white wafers slightly in microwave for a few seconds for brighter color writing
If desired rub a bit of powdered sugar around edge of chocolate for a chalky finish
for more detailed look or brighter white you can create designs using a new clean paint brush and ready made icing
simply melt icing according to directions, pour onto a plate and paint on or use a combination of the white wafers accented with icing
While this technique doesn't render the most perfect lettering, the effect is lots of fun and it's an easy, enjoyable kitchen activity for kid's to help you with
Serve with tea or cocoa and arrange with seasonal accents 

or use winter or Christmas themes to enjoy or give as holiday gifts

Wherever you are and whatever you celebrate,
Wishing our wonderful readers all the sweetness
of the 

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Bienvenus Automne: Fall in France

Every once in a while, when a great travel bargain and those tricky airline points serendipitously align, an opportunity for adventure arises. This October I was delighted to travel to France for an (all too quick) boat trip on the lovely Seine river with stops in beautiful Normandy, an area I've always wanted to visit. 
on the river Normandy, CPaul2015
A highlight of the trip was a stop at the artist Claude Monet's garden in Giverny, and though it must be spectacular in Spring and Summer, the beautiful grounds, even at the end of the season, did not disappoint.
photos CPaul2015
changing trees, Giverny France CPaul2015
I soon learned that the region of Normandy is known worldwide for it's fine apples, delicious, but strong, calvados (an apple brandy) and exceptional cheeses. Boasting lush farmland, charming stone farmhouses and it's famous Norman cows, the area inspires rustic cozy recipes perfect for celebrating the crisp arrival of Fall.
I thought I'd recreate a little taste of Normandy once at home with this simple apple tart from the Barefoot Contessa (click HERE for recipe)
topped with a chantilly cream recipe I found on about

Calvados can be pricey and tricky to find, 
but you can easily substitute rum, water or apple juice
Frozen puff pastry sheets makes this an easy recipe for those 
with limited baking skills (moi!)
lovely for dessert or a breakfast treat

Photo CPaul2015
I halved this recipe and found it made enough for a generous dollop on each serving

served warm or at room temperature, these tarts are perfect with a cup of tea and good book

Autumn, the year's last, loveliest smile
                                         William Cullen Bryant 

Wishing everyone all the joys of Fall!