Thursday, December 27, 2012

Chocolate Pomegranate Bark and a Champagne Cocktail ~ Celebrating a Year in Pictures

Dark Chocolate Pomegranate Bark with holiday decorations

2012... what a year!  Filled with food, travel and my beloved photography, this world has stretched my boundaries and filled my life with the love of good friends combined with the flavors of fabulous food.  I have so much to be thankful for, and as New Year's approaches I'm ready to Celebrate.  Stretching east, my fellow Inspired Plate members are celebrating along with me as we share our final Food Styling and Photography Challenge of the year - Celebration.

2012 Year in Review
With a year of photography challenges under my belt, I took a moment to look back at the work I've submitted during the last 12 months.  While I'm extraordinarily proud of some images, there are a couple that are cringe-worthy.

What brings the most joy though, are not the actual images but the memories of late night chats on Facebook, the supportive comments and critiques of my fellow photographers, and the newly formed friendships that can be found within the members of this special group.

An eclectic group of talented women, The Inspired Plate touches locations across the world.  Starting here on the West Coast of California (I'm in San Diego), the members bring stunning photos to you also from the mid west, the east, Canada and on towards the date line from Perth, Australia.  With varying levels of skills, we have worked together monthly to provide our own interpretations of the given challenges.

Early challenges began simply with "Photography on White" and quickly stepped up the difficulty level with subjects of meat, fish and pasta.  Failing miserably at the "meat" challenge, the Mahi Mahi Tacos we created for the "fish" challenge have become a regular in our meal rotation, and I think I had the most fun writing that particular post.

"Photography on black" proved to be the most difficult to me, while the "pasta" photos took me back to my treasured days in Italy.  My favorite challenge of the year?  Without a doubt ~ The Splash...

The act of freezing time became somewhat addictive and had the entire family participating by dropping objects of all sorts into glasses of liquid.  Relishing the fact that the spilled liquid was not going to make Mommy upset, the splashes grew, and soon the tile of the kitchen floor was slick and the table dripping.  Catching a splash is indeed spectacular when captured properly, however that capture (as shown by my over 500 non-useable shots) is many times elusive.

Bringing back The Splash for our December Celebration Challenge, we bring you a new favorite cocktail worthy of any Celebration and perhaps an ideal libation for your own New Year's Bash welcoming 2013.

Champagne Pomegranate Cocktail

Incorporating my very first challenge subject, the pomegranate, we've supplemented a celebratory sparkling wine with a splash of unsweetened pomegranate juice.  Dropping in a few fresh pomegranate aerials we have a festive and flavorful aperitif boasting a few antioxidants with those bubbles.  Bubbles represent happy occasions to me, and whether your bubbles hail from the true Champagne regions of France, the Prosecco versions of Italy, or the sparkling versions of California's Napa Valley, they all exude a similar excitement.

Champagne bubble with pomegranate Aerials (seeds)
One of the oldest known fruits, the beautiful pomegranate is a native of Persia.  Nutrient dense and antioxidant rich, pomegranates have long been revered as symbols of health, fertility and eternal life.  Also tied to mythology, pomegranates are known as the "Food of the Underworld"...

 The myth of Persephone, the goddess of the Underworld,  features the pomegranate. In one version of Greek mythology, Persephone was kidnapped by Hades and taken off to live in the underworld as his wife. Her mother, Demeter (goddess of the Harvest), went into mourning for her lost daughter and thus all green things ceased to grow. Zeus, the highest ranking of the Greek gods, could not allow the Earth to die, so he commanded Hades to return Persephone. It was the rule of the Fates that anyone who consumed food or drink in the Underworld was doomed to spend eternity there. Persephone had no food, but Hades tricked her into eating six pomegranate seeds while she was still his prisoner and so, because of this, she was condemned to spend six months in the Underworld every year. During these six months, when Persephone is sitting on the throne of the Underworld next to her husband Hades, her mother Demeter mourns and no longer gives fertility to the earth. This became an ancient Greek explanation for the seasons.  (from wikipedia)

With my fingers crossed that each seed I've eaten this year will not commit me to a month in the underworld, our celebration continues with an antioxidant rich Pomegranate Bark.  Dark chocolate and pomegranate combine bringing an irresistible treat that literally pops in your mouth.  Aerials stirred into and sprinkled on top of the melted chocolate literally burst with flavor and bring a double dose of those ever popular antioxidants in addition a simply wonderful dessert.

As we close this emotional year of 2012, I thank my newfound Inspired friends for their never ending advice, professionalism and simple friendship.  I'm looking forward to the challenges of 2013 with excitement (as well as a touch of trepidation), and I'm ever so thankful to be celebrating with this wonderful group today.

Begin a trip around the world with me as I introduce the beautiful Sabrina Wong, a Food Photographer in Perth, Australia and we'll continue our Celebration... summer style!

Dark Chocolate Pomegranate Bark

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Cranberry Pomegranate Almond Granola with Orange Essence

Pulling together the last of our holiday gifts, I've reluctantly packaged up the end of my batch of Cranberry Granola.  Filled with toasted almonds and pepitas, this granola seems to brightly shine with the addition of freshly grated orange peel.

2012 was my granola discovery year.  Even though I am a child of the 60's, I always looked at granola as "hippie food" (not that there is anything wrong with that...) and life took me through some 45 years before I gave granola a try.  Now that I have a number of recipes under my belt, I can't seem to get enough of the crunchy goodness, and I'm thrilled to make it cheaper and healthier at home.

On the forefront of the natural food revolution, granola made a name for itself in the 1960's as young adults took a stand against processed food.  Adding fruit and nuts to a mixture of baked grains, hippies of the 60's revived the crunchy cereal and soon had others referring to them as "Crunchy" or "Granola Heads".

Lately granola has again made a resurgence of sorts, and recipes for all kinds of flavors can be found across the internet.  Often thought of as "health food", one does have to be careful though, as the cereal can be sugar and fat laden, becoming more of a crunchy dessert than a healthy breakfast.

Enter the homemade version.  Inexpensive, lower in fat and sugar, and tailored to your exact preference, what's not to like?  Filled with the whole grain goodness of oats, flax, rye or wheat germ, you choose the grains.  Bound with oils, eggs, fruit purees or nut butters, you choose the fat content.  Sweetened with brown sugar, maple syrup, agave or even apple sauce, you choose the sweetener.  And so on.  Add in your favorite nuts and dried fruits and you have an ideal crunchy topping for yogurt, a delightful bowl with milk or a tasty, energy providing snack eaten out of hand.

Placed in a cute jar or simply tied in a cellophane gift bag, granola is easy to package and works wonderfully as a homemade gift.  With a decent shelf life, granola can be made ahead of time, or tossed together at the last minute when a quick gift is needed.

Celebrating the season, Liv and I tossed together this simple Cranberry Pomegranate Almond Granola and added freshly grated orange peel bringing a beautiful, bright, and healthy treat that is sure to be appreciated.  Our recipe is below, but now that I can claim to be a real Granola Head, I've got a few additional recipes that just might pique your interest:

Peanut Butter Granola
Slightly higher in fat, but I think this one is my all time favorite!
Lower in fat, this granola brings a tropical twist.
Pure Maple Syrup brings you a sweet breakfast in a bowl

Filled with heart healthy ingredients, this granola also brings flavors of Pumpkin Pie
And now we bring your our latest version.... Cranberry Pom Granola with Almonds and Orange Essence.  Package some up for a neighbor today!

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Mexican Hot Chocolate Mix

Mexican Hot Chocolate Mix tied with raffia

Ever have one of those panic moments when you need a quick present for a neighbor or as an unexpected Hostess Gift?  A simple hot chocolate mix perfectly fits the bill.  With the popularity of our Peppermint Hot Chocolate Mix, Liv has put together a new version, the ever popular Mexican Hot Chocolate Mix.

Mexican Hot Chocolate Mix with cinnamon and brown sugar
Arriving home one afternoon, I found my girl in the midst of plundering our pantry and unwrapping an Ibarra Chocolate disc.  Wrapped in an attractive, bright yellow wrapper, the packaging is indeed eye catching, though the chocolate inside is not the usual candy bar version.  With ingredients including undissolved sugar, the discs provide a bit of a gritty texture, and the cinnamon flavor can be somewhat unexpected if you don't know it's there.  Not really meant to be eaten out of hand (though you most certainly can if you want to), Ibarra is best used in Hot Cocoa.

Our experience has found that brown sugar adds a nice richness to the mix, and an additional touch of cinnamon warms the body just that much more.  Layered into a cute jar, tied with a ribbon and sent with a quick note of directions, you will have your hostess gift put together in a flash, or... a Mexican Hot Chocolate Mix ready for a cold, rainy afternoon all for you.

Mexican Hot Chocolate Mix

Monday, December 17, 2012

Cranberry Orange Muffins

Since she was born, Liv has had quite a penchant for sugar.  As a matter of fact, when asked her favorite food she will often respond, "Sugar!", and she does indeed like it straight from the sugar bowl.

Usually I do my best to tailor recipes to reduce this sweet ingredient, but baking for my carpool girls today, I felt the need for something special.  I went full out, and Darla at Bakingdom provided us with a most ideal recipe not skimping on the sugar.  Not only do her muffins use a full cup of sugar in the batter, but the tops of the tender muffins are not only dipped into a sugar glaze, but then dipped again into a fabulous orange flecked sugar which provides a perfectly delectable topping.

Cranberry Orange Muffins in Muffin Tin
Pulling out my rarely used over-sized muffin tin, 6 extraordinarily generous muffins lent an aroma of heavenly orange to my kitchen as they baked.  Dried cranberries provided the perfect tart foil to the muffin sweetness, but I have to admit that the orange flecked sugar topping won our hearts.

For your sugar fiend, these muffins are sure to be a hit.  As I made the recipe exactly as printed on Darla's blog, I'm going to send you there for the recipe... let her know we sent you, and then let us both know what you think of your own version.  We call ours irresistible.

Cranberry Orange Muffins
Cranberry Orange Muffins ~ Click these words to see the recipe at Bakingdom!

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Remembrance, Grief, Balance, and Living

Seagull taking flight over the ocean at sunset
 “Only people who are capable of loving strongly can also suffer great sorrow, but this same necessity of loving serves to counteract their grief and heals them.”
― Leo Tolstoy
Loss, grief, pain, confusion, anger, and complete sadness... such are the feelings that have coursed through my body in the last 24 hours as I've struggled with tears shed in light of the Sandy Hook shooting.  My heart has torn into pieces for the families who sent their precious angels to school only to see them become real angels before lunchtime.  I can never pretend to understand or feel the desperation and agony they must be faced with, and I pray that some sort of peace, someday, will return to their lives.

Two years ago my universe drew near to the Sandy Hook of today.  As I walked my dog a neighbor drove by asking if I knew if the reports of a shooting at our school were true.  Fear immediately gripping my entire being, my husband and I rushed to our computer to find our worst fears founded... yes, a gunman had entered our elementary school (see local article here) and reports were coming out that a child had been life flighted to Children's Hospital.  More reports stated that there may be another shooter in the area and that all area schools were on full lockdown.

Emotions I never in my life expected to experience flowed through me as we did what was probably not recommended, and rushed to our daughter's school just blocks from were the shooting occurred.  My phone was in constant action as I received texts from a distraught friend who had been returning from a field trip just as the shooting occurred.  She and her group of children had been quickly ushered into a house across the street from the school and she was watching our Carlsbad Police search the area, guns drawn, rifles pointed, etc.  She has nightmares to this day.

Two 2nd grade girls received gunshot wounds that day as they played at recess.  Thankfully, they were "only" shot in the arms and neither required long hospital stays, but the emotional wounds and physical scars will remain with them for their lifetimes.  

Pink Ranuncula Flower in honor of Sandy Hook Victims
As luck would have it, a group of three construction workers risked their own lives and tackled the shooter as he returned to his car for additional ammunition.  They are true heroes, as is the schoolyard worker who rushed towards the shooter as she yelled for the children to find cover.  She screamed at the man to stop, and in turn received a gun pointed at her head.. she would not be here today if it was not for the gun jamming.

While I can't compare our incident to that of Sandy Hook, I can understand the fear that is gripping this community across the country from me.  I can identify with the loss of innocence of kindergartners and other young children.  I can only hope that the media will leave these people alone.  For weeks after the shooting, and again at the time of the trial, our school was hounded by helicopters, news vans and the simply curious.  To the media... please go away.

I wish and pray for strength and peace for the families in Connecticut.  For those little angels whose life was stolen, I grieve for you along with the rest of our nation.  For the parents who lost the lights of their lives, my heart breaks.  And though I know their lives will be forever changed as a part of them has passed with their lost children, I pray for their strength to continue on.  For the adults who gave their lives to protect these children, they are the real heroes of our world, and I grieve along with the loved ones they left behind and thank them for their sacrifice.  For the children who lived this experience, I feel sorrow for their loss of innocence.

I don't really know how to process what has happened, but for my own children I'm trying to maintain balance. Life is not certain, but while we are here we must remember to live it.  Take a moment to love those around you.  Step away from the computer or television and enjoy a sunset with someone you love.  Forgive someone who wronged you.  I wish for us all to take the time to Liv Life in honor of those who no longer have that opportunity...

Candles with the names of the Sandy Hook Victims
Not a Liv Life Image - Photo courtesy of Lamond B

Monday, December 10, 2012

Garlic Dinner Rolls

Dear Bread,

 I love you.  I crave you.  I'm not sure I can live without you.  A few weeks ago a friend of mine posed this question on Facebook, "Bread or Chocolate?".   Now, I will admit that chocolate and I have a thing too... but you?  You have my heart. 

Tender, soft, and simply irresistible, you are the perfect partner to my every meal.  Warm and slathered with butter, you become even more attractive, and then when you met garlic?  Not only did you make my house smell beyond fabulous, but you tasted positively heavenly.

We've had such a good relationship over the years, so I have to wonder... why don't you like me as much I like you?  Why do you insist on sitting around my middle just because I've entered my mid-40's?  We've been such good friends, and friends shouldn't make friends gain a pound or two.

Even still, I will never turn my back on you.  We may not be able to spend quite as much time together, but you will always be a part of my life.  I just can't quit you...

Garlic Cheese Dinner Rolls

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Roasted Tomato Soup with Basil... Panera Inspired

Life, all by itself, is busy enough, but throwing in the holiday season tends to kick the mix up a notch.  As I squeeze extra lines onto my already full list of shopping, card writing, wrapping, and baking, sometimes I need a moment to check that list twice.  Regular meals fall by the wayside as the extra miles add up on the car, and that all too precious "good night's sleep" has become a rare treat.

This is about the point where Panera came to my rescue.  Actually, not only came to my rescue, but gave me a nice midday break in addition to a special lunch with Mom and Dad.  About a month ago, Daily BuzzFood sent out an questionnaire asking if Tastmakers were interested in writing a review on Panera soup.  I think I took every bit of 2 seconds for me to sit up straight in my seat and stretch my hand high to the ceiling all the while squealing, "Pick me!!  Pick me!!!"  And they did.

Setting aside an afternoon, Mom, Dad and I met up at our local Panera and spent a leisurely hour filling each other in on our busy schedules.  With a gift card from Daily Buzzfood in addition to one free lunch from Panera's MyPanera Program, we ordered to our hearts content and soon had more food than we needed.  Sandwiches, salads, breads, and 3 different soups graced our table, and a good amount of time was spent tasting, critiquing (we didn't have many), and complimenting our choices.  With soups made from real ingredients, Panera has always been high on my list of "good for you food choices".

Amazingly, all three of us had different favorites, mine being the Black Bean.  Always a fan of beans, Panera simmers theirs to perfection, not bringing you mushy bean chunks, but whole beans with an ideal bite.  Big, bold flavor brings a heartiness to the soup, and a touch of spice warms the body on a cold day.

Mom chose the Chicken Noodle, and all three of us agreed that the noodles Panera uses are exceptional.  Thicker than your average pasta, the broad egg noodles gives one enough substance to be a perfect option in the restaurant's You Pick 2 lunch Choice. 

Dad, who is usually very calorie conscious, took a different route this day and ordered the Broccoli Cheddar.  Silky, creamy and nicely cheesy, the soup boasts enough broccoli along with a touch of carrot to make you feel like you still had your veggies and your soup too.

As part of our tasting process, Daily BuzzFood has asked participating Tastemakers to put together a soup of their own inspired by their day at Panera.  Taking a poll over the past few days, I've had requests to replicate nearly every soup on Panera's menu.

The funniest version though, came from my vegetarian neighbor who proclaimed her deep love for Panera's French Onion Soup.  Another vegetarian friend and I raised our eyebrows at her proclamation as we explained that French Onion is made with Beef Broth.  The first friend's eyes opened wide, she thought for a minute and stated, "I think I'll pretend I never heard that..." and refused to broach the subject again.

My husband's choice won for our inspiration with a special request for a simple Tomato version of Panera's Creamy Tomato.  A huge fan of tomato soups, he is not particularly fond of the cream found in many recipes.

Taking the lead from Panera as well as my time in Italy, I turned to just a few simple, fresh ingredients.  Ina Garten recommends roasting tomatoes, and as luck would have it, my local farmer's market still had a few perfectly ripe Romas on the tables.  Adding fresh basil leaves, good quality olive oil, onion and garlic had aromas of Rome wafting through my kitchen in mere minutes, and the addition of chicken broth turned the whole concoction into soup.

Setting a steaming bowl in front of my tired husband as he returned from a trip across the country, he wearily spooned a taste, and before long was requesting seconds.   Announcing that I had "done it" (created a Tomato Soup that tasted like tomatoes) he set off to bed with that comforting feeling that only soup can give.

Many thanks to Panera for giving us a break in our busy holiday schedule, and for being the perfect healthy lunch choice for an afternoon with Mom and Dad.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

DIY Peppermint Hot Chocolate Mix... the perfect homemade holiday gift

DIY Peppermint Hot Chocolate Mix

Liv adores a nice steamy cup of Hot Chocolate on a chilly day, and she swears that the silky chocolate eases a winter cold and soothes her sore throat.  Watching her prepare a cup, though, leaves me wondering if it's actually the chocolate drink she likes or the mounds of whipped cream she layers on top.

Last week's cold once again required a medicinal dose of Hot Chocolate and this version sang holiday praises with the addition of a decent dose of peppermint.  And low and behold, a little internet research informed me that my girl is not so far off.  Site after site recounted statements similar to the following:

Peppermint Hot Chocolate topped with melting whipped cream
The decongestant, expectorant, antiviral and astringent properties of Peppermint may help soothe sore throats and relieve dry cough, cold and nasal congestion.

So there we have it!  Straight from current medical journals, peppermint really does help ease symptoms of the common cold.

Peppermint also brings a little joy to our holiday season with it's bright, fresh flavors, and we've put together a simple Peppermint Hot Chocolate Mix, placed it in a pretty jar and added a bright red bow for the perfect small holiday gift.  Add a fun mug, a peppermint stir stick, and you have a lovely homemade gift that is sure to bring a smile, or perhaps ease a cold.

DIY Peppermint Hot Chocolate Mix

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Candy Cane Peppermint Truffles

Peppermint seems to be one of the ultimate Christmas flavors, and with red and white spiraled candy canes used as decorations for the yard to the tree, the humble candy cane shines as a sweet tradition of the season.  While I adore looking at the canes, peeling the wrapper off and eating one is not my thing.  Too sweet and a sticky mess, I find them better left on the tree than in my hand.  That being said, a candy cane or peppermint candy crushed and used in a recipe has become one of my favorite holiday ingredients.

Two years ago, Wendy of the Weekend Gourmet, and I discovered a recipe for Peppermint Truffles floating around the web.  I've since forgotten where I saw the original post, however the inspiration comes from a recipe on the Kraft website called Easy Oreo Truffles.

Peppermint Truffles with one half eaten
Wendy and I have both adapted our versions to suit our tastes, with my favorite featuring Trader Joe's holiday ingredients.  Though the recipe is simple enough, the dipping part can take a bit of time. With an elf to help you, though (mine is named Liv), and a few time saving tips, we'll have you looking a hero in no time.

Trader Joe's Candy Cane Joe Joe's provide the base the these fabulous treats, and we use a block of low fat cream cheese as a binder.  My favorite part is the addition of the crushed candy cane or hard peppermint candy.  Bringing an ever so slight crunch to the creamy truffle, the peppermint candies leave the truffles simply bursting with holiday flavor.

Now a tradition in our holiday season, I'd say you can't go wrong with these Candy Cane Peppermint Truffles.  Perfect on your holiday cookie tray, a welcomed personal hostess gift or simply as a nibble before breakfast, I can't get enough of these holiday confections.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

DIY Vanilla Extract... the perfect holiday gift (includes instructions on sealing and labeling).

DIY Homemade Vanilla Extract in 4 ounce bottle with labels
Planning ahead for the holidays is not usually my style.  As a matter of fact, I've been known to do (not finish... but, do) my Christmas shopping on December 23rd.  Nothing like waiting till the last minute!  Occasionally though, I surprise myself as well as those around me, and make an ultra-organized move that makes me smile as it comes to fruition.

Such was my organizational move this year to prepare DIY Homemade Vanilla Extract (See our September post for details on getting things started).  Three months ago boxes of bottles and vanilla beans arrived at my door and had my husband raising an eyebrow at my latest project.  This project though, couldn't be easier, and while you may be a little behind, you are not too late to put it together for holiday gifts this year. 

Vanilla extract comes together as one places sliced vanilla beans (we got our from Beanilla) into a clean bottle and then covers with alcohol - different alcohols and different vanilla beans bring varying flavors.  This year our extracts feature one of two different beans.  My personal favorite, the light and floral Tahitian Bean, lends a lovely lighter vanilla flavor to any recipe, while the more traditional Bourbon Bean brings a touch of richness and a slightly bolder, traditional note to the table.

Filling most of our adorable little bottles (we got them for a good price at Specialty Bottle Company) with a good quality Vodka, the vanilla began to extract with in mere hours.  Days later the liquid turned a light golden hue, and today, three months later, the bottles are ready with the deeper colors we expect from Pure Vanilla Extract.  Note that the Bourbon beans seem to be bringing a richer, deeper flavor as well as color.

Homemade Vanilla Extract just hours after starting
Our hours old extract!  Instagram from September....
Filling a few additional bottles with Maker's Mark Bourbon, this vanilla takes on an even greater depth as the bourbon alcohol brings notes of vanilla from the start.  Rich and dark, this pure extract is wonderful in a recipe where you want the vanilla flavors to really shine.

Our bottles closed with corks, and over the three months we did notice a bit of evaporation in a few.  As such, a little online research showed me how to cover the bottle tops with a bottle wax providing a moisture-resistant coating which also preserves freshness, flavor and fragrance as well as giving our bottles a beautifully finished look.  My research let me to Midwest Home Brewing and Wine Making Supplies out of Minnesota where we chose the burgundy color, but the little wax beads come in a multitude of colors for your every occasion.

Homemade Vanilla Extract, bottles prepared with bakers twine for wax dipping
To make the wax easy to remove, Liv and I wrapped a bit of baker's twine around the cork and around the top of the bottle, and then down the side, leaving enough to have a bit of twine hanging below the wax.  Securing the twine with tape (to make dipping easier) our bottles were ready to dip, and we found the twine to work wonderfully as a little "pull tab" to cut through the wax when one is ready to open the bottle.

Attempting to ease clean up, we poured the wax beads into a clean and dry can and placed it over medium heat on the stove in a pot of water.  Similar to melting chocolate, the boiling water was enough to melt the wax, though you might note that it took about about 10 minutes for the wax to become completely liquid.  Please take great care when using the hot wax as it can cause serious burns if spilled onto the skin.

Dipping homemade vanilla extract into a can of melted bottle sealing wax
Once melted, carefully remove the wax can from the water and place on a sturdy surface, like a counter.  Check to make sure your corks are very secure and then dip the bottle into the wax as far as desired, then remove slowly keeping the bottle facing downward so the wax does not drip down the sides of the bottle.  Alternatively, turn your bottle upright and tilt and twist to allow the wax to drip down the sides.  Once the wax stops dripping, place the bottle on your counter to set.  We gave ours a second dip for a thicker wax coating.

Next up, a nice finishing touch is a label.  While I designed and printed labels directly from my computer onto packing labels, templates are available online with a little searching.  I did find that our labels stuck beautifully onto the glass bottle for about 20 minutes, then corners began to lift, and before I knew it, the labels were popping off all over.  My best idea had me placing a piece of clear packing tape over the labels giving a nice water proof cover and a good stick, but not the most beautiful finish.  Next year I hope to have a better labeling idea!  If a label is not your thing, a piece of baker's twine with a little card hanging off the cork could be an alternate decorative and festive way to go.

Homemade Vanilla Extract, sealed and labeled

Our vanilla extract "brewed" for about 3 months, and while I felt it was ready, I wouldn't mind it a touch stronger.  To beef up the vanilla strength, our extract uses 2 beans to about 4 ounces of alcohol, and if you want to give these welcomed little gifts this year, you could simply write a little note saying explaining that the extract will be ready in March.

Easy, tasty, and from the heart, Homemade Vanilla Extract works beautifully as gifts for any holiday or occasion, or maybe as a little present to yourself...

Homemade Vanilla Extract, holiday gifts with wax seal and labels

Monday, December 3, 2012

The Holiday Table... An Inspired Plate Photography Challenge

I love the look of beautifully set holiday tables.  You know the ones, the ones with the lovely matching holiday china, gleaming polished silver, perfectly pressed linens and sparkling stemware.  The serving platters would be filled with superbly cooked food... tender and juicy meats, warm crusty breads, and roasted vegetables on the side.  Sparkling wines would glimmer in my sparkling stemware, and a sideboard would hold all of my beautifully decorated desserts.

Formal Table Setting, china, silver and linens
China, linens and silver...
Reality, though, sometimes throws a wrench onto my perfectly set holiday table.   China and silver do not line my shelves, my linens sometimes have wrinkles, and occasionally the stemware has a spot or two that gets wiped away at the last minute.  Holidays for us are occasionally celebrated on alternative days to suit my airline pilot husband's traveling schedule, and on occasion I've overcooked the meat.

What I've come to realize over the years though, is that none of that matters.  It's not the table that makes the holiday, it's the people.  And I'm so thankful to have been blessed with a multitude of friends and family over the years who have made our holidays extraordinarily special.  From just next door to up the coast to across the country, our table has been graced with smiling faces I will never forget.

This month's Inspired Plate Challenge held the title "The Holiday Table", and I truly enjoyed the opportunity to try to shoot my actual table, albeit during that completely mad moment just between getting the turkey out of the oven and the vegetables in.  As mom and Liv worked to get our gravy put together, my husband carved our bird, and my dad filled the water glasses.  Stealing a few moments, my aunt and I worked together to shoot our holiday table 2012.  The shot at the top of our post gives you a glimpse of our setting only minutes before the turkey arrived.

Liv and I enjoy putting our table together, and over the years we've come up with a few easy tips to make the holiday table festive and fun.

Holiday Table Tips

Holiday Food Collage
Visions of holidays past...
  • A tablecloth always adds a touch of elegance.
  • Bring in the outside... our centerpiece is a grouping of Giant Sequoia pine cones (don't tell anyone we picked up a few on our last visit... the sign said that was not allowed!) set among a few candles.  Or how about a few fall colored leaves or a sprig of holly?
  • Keep the centerpieces fairly low, and not too large.
  • Something as simple as a bowl full of glass Christmas Tree balls will bring an additional festiveness to the table (Use different colors for different holidays).
  • Chargers under the plates bring a sense of something special.
  • Cloth napkins along with napkin rings always spruce up a table.  Don't have formal rings?  It's a perfect project for the kids to make!
  • Name cards also add a special touch... how about a card pinned to a little pumpkin for decoration?
  • Decorate with food... for example, place a candle in a hurricane and fill halfway with cranberries or un-popped popcorn.  Fill a bowl with fruit - clementines, pomegranates and a few fresh cranberries along with a few citrus leaves if available.
  • Make a peppermint stick vase.
  • Serve homemade or store bought desserts layered on a simple platter.
The ideas are endless!  One can decorate without needing to invest a great amount of money, and with just a few special touches your table can be festive and bright.

For more fabulous holiday table shots, follow our Inspired Plate (we have a Facebook Page!) Clog circle, next up we head across the country to my friend and fellow TIP member, Tiffany Dahle of Peanut Blossom.

Holiday table 1968... this is what it's all about.  (That's little me on the left!)

Monday, November 26, 2012

Don't forget about pumpkin - it's not just for holidays!

It's not just for Halloween....
When I was little, my sense of adventure did not include food.  Tried and true foods were my staples, with pasta being a highlight.  Holidays brought a bit of stress as they also brought different, more traditional (though not in my mind) foods to the table, and I found myself frequently refusing to eat them.

Pumpkin was one of those foods.  In my mind, pumpkins were meant for carving, not eating.  Slices of creamy Pumpkin Pie were left untouched and untasted, and it wasn't until I reached my 30's that I discovered what I was missing.  Today, I can't get enough pumpkin, and it's not just for fall anymore.

During this fall holiday season I stock up on the canned version, and we pull out cans year round for pumpkin treats.  When my kids were little, pumpkin was a staple in pancakes and muffins, adding a nice dose of Vitamin A as well as fiber while keeping calories low.

We've had Pumpkin Cinnamon Rolls for July birthdays, Pumpkin Chocolate Cake for August Jazz in the Park, and a lovely Pumpkin Gorgonzola Pasta for the first day of Spring.  That being said, I do enjoy the plethora of pumpkin recipes and lore that come with this fall holiday season, and I found myself captured recently by a story from friend of a friend a few weeks ago.

As Leslie told me about Vi, her face lit up with the glow of happy memories.  She reminisced about the days when she was a little girl, and also about a Pumpkin Pie that only Vi could make taste so good.   Vi promised the "secret recipe", and you'll have to read the story to be in on the secret...

by Leslie L.

Yes Viola, or Vi as we called her, would come each Thursday to help my mom around the house with ironing and light cleaning. As soon as Vi arrived all five of the Laurer kids would sit at the kitchen table and wait for the weekly ritual of Vi making peanut butter toast for breakfast. It wasn’t the toast we anticipated but rather watching our dad frantically search in every cupboard looking for his jar of peanut butter. Little did he know that Viola had hidden it in the oven on purpose.  I don’t know to this day if dad was on to her or just played through the scenario for the delight of his kids.

Viola was married to Ernie, who was a cobbler. And that is what he called himself, a cobbler. Vi and Ernie lived in a little, lavender house in the center of Baltimore City. Lavendar was my favorite color and I remember thinking that I had never seen such a pretty house in my life. 

Viola was a wonderful cook. After school we would come home knowing that Viola had made a special pie. With the remains from the pie crust she would bake triangles smeared with butter and cinnamon. It was a little bit of heaven to pop them into our mouths! She made an amazing beef stew too, but her specialty was Viola’s Pumpkin Pie. We used to say, “Vi … how come your pie tastes so good?” She would just smile and say, “One day when the angels come to take me away, I will leave you my secret recipe.” 

Viola and Ernie eventually sold that darling, little lavender house which was now ensconced by skyscrapers for a great sum of money. They contributed to their church, got on a bus and toured the United States for the remainder of their lives.

When Viola passed away she was true to her word… and left her most precious Pumpkin Pie recipe to my sisters. We hope you enjoy it as much as we have over the past 49 years!

The recipe comes from the pumpkin pie filling can.  One large can makes 2 pies.
Viola’s secret ingredient?  One cup of Kentucky Bourbon and ½ teaspoon of maple syrup!
Remember liquor evaporates a little while cooking so we always add a little more...


I would love to have known Vi, and I'd be willing to bet she had some fabulous story to tell... many thanks to Leslie and her family for sharing Vi's story with us.  What an incredible woman who deserves to be remembered.

As I don't see pumpkin season really coming to an end, I thought we'd bring you some of our favorites from this year as well as years past... Don't forget to stock up on a few extra cans of pumpkin so you can enjoy the heart healthy ingredient year round with us!

Jeanette's Healthy Living

Lemons and Anchovies