Monday, December 15, 2014

2014 Cookie Exchange

What a busy, busy weekend we just had. Lots of activities from our preschoolers Christmas program, to my annual cookie exchange, to other family events that took place over the weekend. For the past five years I've hosted a cookie exchange each December. I know I've talked about it many times before, but it's really one event I look forward to each year.

Nine other ladies joined me this year and it was a big success again. It's always a lot of fun to spend time together because unfortunately, this is one of the few times of the year that we get to see each other.

Our exchange took place where my husband works, they've got an awesome employee lounge for us to use. It's also nice to not have to worry about having everything take place in my own house. I'm always a big stress ball about having everything perfect.

I didn't do a very good job about taking pics of our food, I guess I was too busy feeding my face. I did manage to sneak a few photos though. This year I asked everyone to bring along a small appetizer to share with the group. I think it worked out wonderfully and we had a very nice spread to choose from.

We then played a few games such as a Christmas word scramble, an ornament exchange and this fun paper plate game. You'll want to add this one to your holiday party plans, everyone will be laughing the entire time and it's always fun to see their drawings afterwards!

Then of course, comes the best part of all. Swapping cookies! All of our cookies are displayed between a couple tables and we walk around gathering a few from each platter. All in all, we each went home with five dozen. Plenty for our families to nibble on, share with friends and family or bring along to our holiday parties. Here are just a few of the varieties we had this year:

Each year I also encourage the ladies to bring along any extras they have while baking. That way we can compile them into one large box and donate to an organization in our community. It's a great way for us to give back. Yesterday my girls and I dropped off a big cake box full of cookies to a local homeless shelter. The guests we very excited for some home baked treats! It's truly one of my most favorite aspects of hosting this exchange each year. Sometimes it can be a lot of work pulling it all together, but it's so much fun and I always look forward to the next year!

Monday, December 8, 2014

Chocolate Caramel Brownie Bites

I'm not exactly sure who ever made up these national food days, but they sure are fun to celebrate. I made these brownie bites specifically for national brownie day today. Others at work also participated by bringing in their own brownie creations to share with others. It was fun to see what everyone came up with.

I like these bite sized brownies because they're perfect when you're trying to feed a crowd. Especially during the holiday season, easy is crucial. These are a spin off of another brownie dessert I've made before. Since we're a peanut-free school, I had to take a different route with the frosting. No fear though, a simple chocolate fudge buttercream did the trick.

You can most certainly top these with a store bought frosting, but homemade buttercream is really pretty easy to make and tastes so much better! I've already made this dessert easy by using a packaged brownie mix so please don't skip the frosting, it's worth your time I promise.

Holiday platters are always chock full of cookies, if you're not much of a cookie person, give these brownie bites a try. They're sure to please a crowd!

Chocolate Caramel Brownie Bites

18 oz. fudge brownie mix {plus ingredients called for on pkg}
1 bag Rolo candies unwrapped
2 sticks butter, softened
1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup cocoa powder
1-1/2 lbs. powdered sugar
few tsp of milk, for thinning

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Lightly grease two mini muffin pans and set aside. Unwrap Rolo candies, place in a bowl and set in freezer while you prepare brownies.

In a large bowl, prepare brownie batter according to package directions. Using a small cookie scoop, drop batter into prepared pans, filling only 3/4 of the way. Bake in oven for 15 minutes or until set. Remove from oven and immediately place a Rolo {small side down} into each brownie. Place back into oven and bake for two minutes longer. Remove from oven and let cool completely before trying to remove from pan.

To make buttercream; in the bowl of a stand mixer or large bowl, cream together butter and vanilla until light and fluffy. Gradually add in powdered sugar and cocoa powder. Use milk to thin frosting to your desired consistency.

When ready to frost; simply add a dollop on of each brownie bite or use a pastry bag with the Wilton 1M tip or other star tip to frost each individual brownie. Makes 40+ brownie bites.

*You're likely to have extra frosting leftover, don't throw it away! You can easily stash it in the freezer to have for another time. Just put into a freezer safe bowl, make sure to label and date with contents.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Apple Spiced Granola

Well I sure hope you and your family had a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday. We kept things pretty low key around here. We were with the hubby's family part of the day and mine in the evening. Friday was the perfect day since we all still had the day off. The majority of the day was spent being lazy and watching movies, something that doesn't happen often enough! It was a much needed time of relaxation for all of us.

Granola is a favorite around here. I always like experimenting with different variations and flavors. We like it to snack on, as a cereal and especially in our morning yogurt. In this new version I incorporated some of my homemade applesauce. The chunky apples cook in the oven and leave a wonderful soft dried fruit in the granola.

Like usual, most of the time I use whatever we have on hand in the pantry. You can do the same. For extra nutrition, throw chia seeds, flax seed or wheat germ in there as well. It's always better tasting and even more cost effective to make your own granola at home. I can make a large batch for probably about the same price as a small bag costs me in the store.

The problem we always run into in our house is, it just doesn't last long enough. If you've got a good applesauce in the fridge or freezer, try this spiced granola for a yummy new treat!

Apple Spiced Granola

3 cups old-fashioned oats
1/2 cup slivered almonds
1/2 cup dried cranberries
1/3 cup raw coconut
1 tbsp cinnamon
1 tsp nutmeg
1/4 tsp allspice
pinch of salt
3/4 cup applesauce
1/3 cup oil
1 tbsp maple syrup
1 tsp vanilla extract

In a large bowl, combine together all dry ingredients and spices. Mix well. In another bowl, whisk together applesauce, oil, maple syrup and vanilla. Add wet ingredients into the dry and stir to combine.

Pour granola onto a large baking sheet lined with a silicone baking mat or parchment paper. Make sure to evenly distribute. Bake in the oven at 350 degrees for 45 minutes, making sure to turn with a spatula every 15 minutes or so. Let bake until golden brown. Remove from oven, let cool and then transfer to an airtight container.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Hosting a Cookie Exchange

Most definitely one of the highlights to the Christmas season is my annual cookie exchange I host each year. It's a great time for some of my closest friends, family members and I to get together and have a good time. We get a chance to catch up on what's going on in our lives, eat some really good food, play games and of course, swap cookies!

Cookie exchanges are becoming more popular but maybe you've never been to one or even heard of the idea for that matter. It's simply a party where individuals bring a prepared cookie of their choice and exchange with the others in attendance. You leave with the same number of cookies you came with, but only with a large assortment now. I love to schedule mine close enough to the holidays so that the ladies can bring them along to their parties and gatherings if they're needing to supply a dessert.

Have you thought about hosting your own exchange but not sure where to begin? I'm here to help you out! You've still got plenty of time. So let's get started:

Choose your date, time and location- A weekend afternoon might work best depending on your group. I usually aimed for a Sunday afternoon but have recently switched to Saturdays due to our location. We are always finished up within two hours time; that gives us plenty of time to eat a light meal, conversate, play games and swap cookies.

Our group usually consists of 10-15 gals and that's a really good number to start with. My house is no longer big enough for our group, especially when I try to squeeze 15 of us into my living room. So we've since started using the break room where my husband works. It's newly remodeled and complete with plenty of tables, chairs and lots of counter space.

Decide on required amount of cookies and if you'll be serving food: One of the most important aspects to the exchange, is deciding on how many dozen cookies you will require guests to bring. I've done anywhere from three to five dozen. With a large group, I find we like to go with five dozen. That way everyone gets more than two cookies of each kind.

Make sure to have each guest bring copies of their recipe to the exchange. That way everyone can take one with them, you never know, you might end up finding some new family favorites!

I have always prepared a light lunch for my guests in years past, but this year we're doing it a little different. With my working two jobs right now, I just don't have the time for all that. I have asked each guest to bring along a small appetizer to share. You decide on what you're comfortable with, have time for and can afford. And really it's not even necessary for extra food, you can always schedule your party during the afternoon in between meal times.

Create your invites-  Since we're getting close to the holidays, you'll want to make sure you get those out very soon.  Be as creative as you wish. I've written the invitations on recipe cards, printed on fun holiday paper and even have ordered these before.

I always try to send mine out about one month before the exchange. That way my guests have plenty of time to check their schedules, etc. That doesn't mean that you can't still throw together a great party in a short period of time. I always make sure to utilize Facebook as well, you can easily create an invite on there and keep track of your guests that way.

As guests begin to rsvp make sure to keep track of who's bringing which type of cookie. You'll want to inform guests if someone else has chosen the same cookie. Although I've yet to have this problem. I'm always impressed by our variety each year.

Games: Adding a little bit of fun is essential I believe! We always have fun playing 2-3 games. An ornament exchange is something we're planning to do this year, we did it a few years ago and it was simple but a good time. Have each guest bring a wrapped ornament, they don't have to spend a lot and can even make them themselves. Then you can print off a fun poem like this one to read along while you play.

Another game idea is to wrap a prize really well in a box. Like I'm saying use duck tape, wrapping paper, anything you can think of to make it hard to unwrap. Give the starting guest thick gloves and a scarf to put on along with a bowl and dice. Have the guests roll the dice, keep passing along the bowl until a guest rolls a six. Then that guest can put on the gloves and scarf and start trying unwrap the present. Meanwhile the other guests continue passing the dice, once another guest rolls a six they can take away the present. You keep that going until the present is finally opened. But remember, they have to put on the scarf and gloves before they can even start unwrapping. Whoever gets it opened wins the prize. It's a ton of fun and expect lots of laughing throughout the whole game!

The best part of all....swapping cookies: Usually after we've gotten our snacking and game playing out of the way, we end our time together with cookie swapping. I always have tables set up for them to display their platters on when they first arrive. Encourage guests to bring along extra containers to put their cookies in that they're taking with. Depending on how many dozen you make and how many guests you have, depends on how many cookies of each kind you'll take.

I always encourage my guests to bring along any extras they might have while baking. We combine those into a couple boxes and then I arrange to donate them to organizations in our community. This is a tradition that's become a favorite for us and I'm so thankful I have such giving and thoughtful friends and family. Local fire departments, police departments, homeless shelters and assisted living centers are just a few of the places we've donated to and they've always been so appreciative of the treats.

I sure hope you have a better understanding of how cookie exchanges work now. They're tons of fun but don't have to be a lot of work either. It can definitely be a big, elaborate celebration but can also be a simple gathering of a few friends. You can even easily pull this off in an office setting, maybe you'll only want to exchange cookies during lunch hour instead of adding food and games. Whatever works best for you, I hope you'll give it a try. It's one of my most favorite traditions and I'm positive it will become one of yours too!

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Old-Fashioned Sugar Cookie in a Cup

'Tis the season for cookies and all things sweet. I love the holidays and all the baking that comes with it, but I know it can also be a lot. A lot of work and a lot of calories for our waistlines. That's why I love these single serving type of desserts.

They're the perfect size for one or two people to split and just enough to satisfy that craving. Over the weekend the girls and I experimented in the kitchen and came up with this delicious sugar cookie version. It's very similar to my favorite cut-out sugar cookie recipe, I especially love the combination of vanilla and almond extract.

It's also a great way to get the kiddos busy in the kitchen with you, there's nothing complicated about this recipe at all. Especially for those of you that cringe at the thought of rolling out cookies, this one is calling your name!

Old-Fashioned Sugar Cookie in a Cup

1 tbsp unsalted butter
2 tbsp sugar
splash of both vanilla and almond extract
pinch of salt
1 egg yolk
3 tbsp all-purpose flour
sprinkles, if desired

Place tablespoon of butter into a coffee cup and microwave for about 25 seconds, until melted. Add in sugar, both extracts and salt, stir to combine. Add in egg yolk and flour and stir well, batter will be slightly thickened. Throw some fun sprinkles in there if desired.

Microwave for 1 minute. Remove and let cool just a bit and serve warm with a spoon. Enjoy!

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Ranch Veggie Pasta Salad

I've been trying to come up with some different ideas when it comes to packing lunches. Leftovers, sandwiches, wraps, etc can get old easily. And frankly, I don't always have a lot of time to eat; so I like something light yet filling. Enter in this pasta salad.

I threw together this easy pasta salad on a Sunday evening while prepping for the upcoming week. It made enough for me and our oldest to enjoy throughout the week. I'll also make sure to keep this in mind when spring and summer make their appearance again. You can't beat a good salad during grilling season!

What I like best about salads like this is they're so versatile. You can throw in any of your favorite veggies, perhaps chunks of cheese or even meat such as ham or pepperoni slices. Of course a good ranch dressing slathered all over is always a good thing. I even lightened it up a bit by incorporating plain Greek yogurt. You can't even tell the difference, I promise.

If you're searching for some new lunch inspiration as well, give this one a try. Or maybe you're in charge of salads for the upcoming holiday gatherings. Why not add this one to your menu? I know you'll love it!

Ranch Veggie Pasta Salad

8 oz. cooked pasta
2-1/2 cups assorted chopped veggies
5 oz. container plain Greek yogurt
3/4 cup mayonnaise
pepper, to taste
1 oz. packet ranch seasoning mix

In a large bowl combine cooked pasta and veggies, mix together. In another bowl, combine yogurt, mayo, pepper and ranch seasoning and mix together well. Add dressing to pasta mixture and combine until pasta and veggies are well coated.

Cover and chill in fridge until ready to serve.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Freezer Fridays: Apple Pie Filling

A friend of mine dropped off a couple boxes of apples two weeks ago, I hadn't gotten the chance to pick up any apples from area farmers' markets this season so I was really excited when she stopped over. Now my freezer can be set with applesauce and other treats for the winter.

Apple pie is another favorite that I like to stock the freezer with during this time of year. My family has a little tradition where us girls get together and prepare a bunch of pies to be frozen. It's perfect right before the holiday season hits us and we might be needing a dessert for Thanksgiving or what not. We can then thaw one out and bake and you won't ever tell the difference.

Since time seems to be so limited for everyone right now, I don't expect we'll be getting together to prepare any pies this fall. But that's okay. When that happens I know I can prepare this filling and stash the bags in the freezer for another time. The apples freeze just fine and again, my pie will taste just like I prepared everything fresh that day. If I wanted, I could even make sure I have my pie crust all ready to go in the freezer as well.

If you're lucky enough to still have a nice supply of apples on hand, I highly recommend you add some bags of pie filling to your freezer stash. You'll appreciate it come Thanksgiving time when apple pie is on your menu. Save yourself some time in the kitchen!

Freezer-friendly Apple Pie Filling

6 cups sliced apples
1/4-1/2 cup sugar {depends on what type of apple you use, mine were a little on the sweet side}
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1 tbsp flour

In a large bowl combine all ingredients and mix together well. Dump apples into a gallon sized freezer bag. Make sure to label with date and contents. Remove as much air as possible and seal shut. Place in freezer until ready to use.

When ready to prepare a pie, remove from freezer to thaw a bit while you prepare pie crust. Add apples to pie plate and bake as directed.
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