Tag Archives: holidays

Little Gifts: Bourbon-Chipotle Caramel Corn

Sometimes, when it is the holiday season and you have pulled yourself out of bed in the wee hours to watch the earth shift in front of the moon on the solstice for the first time in 372 years, when you’ve stood on your stoop at 3 in the morning with the wind howling and the streets empty and otherwise quiet around you, face to face with the amber moon, when you’ve returned to bed and slept snugly only to rise for weekday brunch, a luxury in and of itself, made even better by lingering for hours around a small table with friends who were barely in your life a mere year ago, when it is the solstice and the sun seems to shine extra brightly to make up for it being the very shortest day, when all these things are part of your winter, sometimes it is nice to bring a little gifty to that weekday brunch to celebrate the season.

While your circumstances may be slightly different, I wish you many reasons for celebration this winter, opportunities that call for something small and homemade to share with others. There is a chance that you simply do not feel like making cookies, but want to whip up  a little something to give away. That’s the boat I was in last night. I had made some caramel corn a couple of weeks back, and, while it was very tasty and swiftly consumed and likened to crack in its addictiveness, a little voice in my head refused to shut up about making caramel corn again, but next time adding a little chipotle. I decided to give it a whirl. Once I got cooking, I realized I was a little short on corn syrup, and I decided that bourbon would be a great way to compensate. Don’t question my logic, people — the addition of whiskey yielded very decadent results, and you will want to eat it up.

Recipe: Bourbon-Chipotle Caramel Corn

What Goes In:

  • 1 cup unpopped popcorn
  • nuts (optional)
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 1 stick unsalted butter
  • 2-3 chipotle peppers in adobo
  • 1/4 cup corn syrup
  • 1/3 cup bourbon
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1/2 tsp. baking soda
  • 1 tsp. vanilla

How To Do It:

  • Pre-heat oven to 250°F and line your biggest baking sheet with parchment.
  • Pop your popcorn however you like and pile it on the pan (I popped mine on the stove in two batches). Add nuts if you like — I used about a half cup of sliced almonds and half cup of peanuts.
  • Melt brown sugar, corn syrup, and bourbon together in a large sauce pan, larger than you think you need, because this stuff is both sticky and bubbly. Let it bubble away on medium heat for five minutes or so.
  • Combine butter and chipotles in a food processor until smooth. Or just blend up your chipotles. I really only combined them because my food processor is too big to fully blend up a couple of small peppers on their own.
  • Add chipotle butter and salt to your bubbly caramel mix. Stir well and cook together for another few minutes (clearly, this is a very scientific process).
  • Turn off heat. Add your baking soda. Stir rapidly. It will foam up a bunch and get lighter in color and thick. Stir in vanilla, too, and quickly pour over popcorn. Stir the sauce into popcorn as well as you can. I like to use a silicone spatula for this — it is good for the stickies.
  • Bake for about an hour, stirring every 15 to 20 minutes to ensure even distribution of caramel and to prevent popcorn from burning.
  • Remove from oven and let cool completely. I left mine out overnight.

The caramel might still be a little on the soft side when you take it out of the oven, but it will crisp up as it cools. Once cool, tumble it into cellophane bags and add adorable gift tags (mine, shown here, are courtesy of the ridiculously sweet Eat, Drink, Chic). Embellish with ribbons, tulle, love letters, whatever your heart desires, and share.

Happy Holidays, and Happy Gifting!


Year End Love

Last year, I posted a list of resolutions around this time: things to make, things to do, things, things, things.

Well, I still don’t have a cheese press, and I haven’t made soap from scratch with fats and lye, and I might even have to throw away a vegetable or two from the fridge today because I didn’t use them before they got funky, and I still don’t compost here in my city apartment with no outdoor space, though I did reach out to some local gardens and urban farms about taking in my scraps this year, so progress, right?

Last year, at my birthday time, the resolutions felt a little manic. It had been such a difficult year, a time of huge transition, trying changes, and all I wanted was to shed old skin, enter a new decade, be OK, and breathe. Being creative, writing down creative goals, was a way to celebrate that inner spark, to push it out to the surface a bit.

At a meeting the other day with some new ladies in my life, we talked about intention. Among many other things, we talked about what we thought intention was, how it differed from goals. I said I thought that goals were something that you work toward, and that intention was living in the work. This was a work meeting, mind you, and there is a chance this comment had more relevance in context, but I am always big on reflection around the time of my birthday, which comes just before the end of the calendar year. And it feels good to look back at that list of goals, things to do, and to realize that I’m not at all sorry about the things I planned to but did not create.

The desire to be creative, the intention set to make myself and others happy, the year of living inside my values, well these are just the best things that I could hope to have. Looking back and looking forward, I can say that the things I wanted most out of my thirtieth year have come my way: opening and settling, calming and centering. Breathing. I love the new shelves in our spare room. I love that there are shiny jars on these shelves, summer’s bounty preserved, labors of love to be given and shared this holiday season. But these things don’t compare to the comfort I feel in my own skin, newfound and gracious, as I enter this next year.

Tomorrow I will walk to the Grand Army farmer’s market in the hat a dear friend made by hand this time last year, chat with people who work the land around here, tote home bags full of vegetables, early winter harvest. Tomorrow I will cook for friends, break out some liqueur from the workshop party, celebrate the year that’s just passed and the new one coming the best way I know how.

As the air gets cold and the winds turn bitter and as 2010 ticks into 2011, I wish you, nice readers, much coziness, much love. I wish gifts for you this holiday season, woolly hats and shiny jars changing hands, but mostly I wish you a cozy home, comfort in your skin, ease of breathing, ease of love. Thank you for being a part of this last year and all its wonders. I am wishing you the best in all that comes next.

Faux Holiday, Real Thanks

Last year, Shawn and I hosted our first faux Thanksgiving. We had hosted the real deal the year before, and it had felt a little like playing house in the best of ways, card tables set up in our living room (we are lacking a dining room) with my family piled around, and, as much as I loved going home to Momma’s last Thanksgiving, I missed the opportunity to cook and cook in my own kitchen, a slightly different ambition. And, while my Momma’s vegetarian Thanksgiving is inarguably the best vegetarian Thanksgiving around, cooking in our own little home provided an opportunity for some slight menu variations incorporating some of Shawn’s favorite things ever: a slightly adapted version of Bryanna’s fake turkey and stuffing.

Late last February, in the dark and dragging days of winter, some friends came over to feast. One friend who was in the same boat as me (having hosted the previous year, missing cooking) cooked a duck for the meat eaters. Another brought an amazing carrot soufflé. I cooked all our favorite Thanksgiving things, and we all drank wine, and there was much merriment. It was great to have the opportunity to cook and to give thanks with friends in a family-style setting, especially in those short days when winter had just about worn out its welcome. I promised Shawn we would do it this year, too.

Spring came early this year, then disappeared, then experienced a resurgence. The strongest effect of the earliest sunshiney days on me, personally, is that I found myself practically skipping off to the farmer’s market every week, eager to behold the springy delights that had surely sprung up into these warm days, ultimately crushed to find only last season’s overwintered apples kicking around. This weather has stirred a deep, almost crazy-making asparagus craving in me, and, while I would have preferred lemony roasted asparagus to sagey roasted carrots (I would prefer lemony roasted asparagus to pretty much anything these days), there was none, and this year’s faux Thanksgiving took on another level of meaning: celebrating overwintered (and the non-local, shipped up variety that I try to avoid) vegetables, autumnal bounty carrying us into these early days of spring.

Here is what we made:

  • Mustardy cheddar gougeres
  • Green salad with pecans, market apples, and blue cheese
  • Garlic mashed potatoes
  • Momma’s mushroom gravy (the best chunky veggie gravy ever — a recipe will appear here one of these days)
  • Fake turkey (but with more flavor, done up in the slow-cooker)
  • Roasted carrots, celery, pearl onions
  • Cornbread stuffing (recipe to follow)
  • Sweet potato pie
  • St. Louis gooey butter cake (So! Much! Butter!!)

It was one of my favorite parties in recent memory, due largely to the fact that, finding myself slightly overwhelmed with cooking tasks and suspecting that I had bitten off more than I could chew a few hours before party time, I was able to successfully remind myself that only my friends would be coming, that I love cooking with my friends, that none of the lovely people slated to arrive would take issue with having a drink and standing, chatting, at the kitchen island while I scurried around. This is surely true of all our parties, but letting that realization sink in made the day of preparation and the party that followed exponentially more joyful for me.

Friends came bearing plants that brought wonderful, springy smells into our home. They mixed drinks, scooped gougeres, chopped mushrooms (thanks, Gary), told stories, ate and ate, paid compliments, and, at the end of the night, Shawn and Gary somehow managed to clean every last dish, pot, and pan that had been used, thus marking the first time in my adult life that I have hosted a party and woken up to a spic and span apartment the next day. I cannot overstate how wonderful it was to see that stove top gleaming in the morning sun, all that clear counter space. And thus, for the second year running, faux Thanksgiving provided many small opportunities for gratitude. In these early spring days, I am grateful for fall foods, dear friends, clean dishes, and the chance to create tradition and celebration at any time of year.

I am also extremely grateful that, in the week  and a half following faux Thanksgiving, I have attended a barbecue, eaten ramps, visited flowering trees at the botanical gardens, and taken many a long and breezy stroll. Spring is springing, the CSA is starting soon, and fresh asparagus is right around the corner!

Chocolate Raspberry Sticky Buns: A Sweet and Gooey Outpouring on Valentine’s Day

Valentine from my little brother, circa age 8

I love Valentine’s Day! For those of you who’d care to point fingers at my relationship and claim that this is not a day for those not in one (you know who you are), I would like to point out that I have ALWAYS loved Valentine’s Day. Due to faulty timing and a lack of long-term relationships, I never even had a romantic Valentine before Shawn, but I never felt the scrambling pressure to get myself one, always enjoyed the opportunity to sit back and celebrate love. Emotional creature that I am, I love any opportunity for the kind of outpouring that takes place on Valentine’s Day — whether it begins in a deeply romantic or a Hallmark-forced place, efforts are made, celebration is had, love abounds, and I think it’s freakin’ awesome.

I suppose it started when I was little and my momma would make us egg in a hole for breakfast on Valentine’s Day, using a heart-shaped cookie cutter to remove the middle of the bread, frying a heart-shaped egg inside, its heart-shaped center fried in butter alongside. Momma gave us little gifts. We exchanged cards in school. There were chocolates and conversation hearts. (Incidentally, this is where I learned the word “coax” at an early age. I still think “coax me” is a weird thing for a conversation heart to say, intermingled with far more straightforward messages of cheesy affection.)  A holiday of hearts and sugar — what could be better to a girlie girl child like me?

My love for Valentine’s Day even survived high school, when surliness ran rampant and I never had a date, though I had terrific friends. One Valentine’s Day at the height of my high school orneriness, one of the best girls I know got a smidge carried away with the making of Valentines, presented me with a poster-sized collage and ode to me as well as a big old bunch of roses. When I got home, my momma asked me where the flowers came from in that “who’s the special someone” voice that mommas save for occasions such as this. Experiencing a fleeting moment of shame about not dating anyone, I mumbled, “just Lauren,” my tone conveying that there was no special someone in my life. Fortunately, I got my wits about me right away and added “I guess I shouldn’t use the word ‘just’ if I’m lucky enough to have friends who will buy me flowers.” Duh. I was flung back, headlong, into my old-timey Valentine’s Day love of love. Apparently, as surly and jaded as I was in those years with my head-to-toe blue and my bitter and biting jokes, I had friends who knew that I was, at the center, still gooey and sweet. Thanks, my dears, for helping me tap into that even in the grumpiest, bluest years. I carry that thought with me on Valentine’s Day, that we are lovable even not at our best., that this is a day for everyone.

I have loved Valentine’s dates with friends, loved making cards, sipping drinks, taking walks, smiling at those in love. And I have loved Valentine’s Day with my boyfriend, five of them now, my beloved dirty gin martinis and dinner at the same cozy restaurant every year, sometimes flowers, sometimes gifts. We’re low on funds this year, so forgoing those things, but we’ll still have our dinner, a walk in the sun, full hearts.

I hope that, honey or no honey, you are able to pamper yourself today. Keep an eye out for the starry-eyed lovers, the friends commiserating over drinks and, in so doing, celebrating love in their own (hidden and potentially embittered) way. Keep an eye out for children bearing paper hearts, for those feeling loneliness on this day, for hearts on sleeves however those hearts are looking. Put some love out, some kindness, too, if you can. If you are home on this winter day, and especially if you are broke like me, whip yourself up something special — something as simple as heart-shaped toast or something as gooey, sticky, and decadently messy as these things that I have concocted.

They are raspberry chocolate sticky buns, and I dreamed them up last night, wandering the aisles of Super Foodtown, trying to come up with something special for my special guy that would not break the bank. Here’s how to make them.

Raspberry Chocolate Sticky Buns – Ingredients:

  • Your favorite cinnamon roll dough (mine is from Cook’s Illustrated, but yours could be from a can for all I care)
  • 3/4 cups white sugar
  • 2 Tbsp. molasses (or omit the molasses and simply use brown sugar instead of white)
  • zest of one small orange
  • 1/2 tsp. vanilla
  • 1/4 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp. ground ginger
  • 1 cup raspberries (I used thawed frozen berries, which made it all pretty jammy. Fresh would be awesome)
  • 4 oz. or so dark chocolate, broken into chunks
  • icing

As always, quantities are approximate. The orange zest and little bit of vanilla and spices give the filling an almost flowery taste that is really nice with the raspberries. If you’re not a big chocolate fan, I imagine that upping the spices a bit (maybe some cardamom, too!) and swapping the chocolate out for white chocolate would also be delicious.

How To:

  1. Roll dough into a rectangle, approximately 12″ x 16″
  2. Combine sugar, molasses, orange zest, vanilla, cinnamon, ginger, and a dash of salt in a food processor. Or mash them together in a bowl with a fork.
  3. If using frozen raspberries, stir them in.
  4. Spread filling onto dough, leaving a border along the long edges of about an inch.
  5. Sprinkle chunks of chocolate over filling. If using fresh raspberries, dot them over the filling now.
  6. Carefully Roll up along the long edge. If using frozen berries, this will be rather oozy.
  7. Cut into 12 equal pieces and put them, cut-side up, in a buttered 9″ x 13″ pan. I lined mine with parchment paper.
  8. Let rise for an hour or so, then bake at 350 degrees for half an hour, noting that your house smells amazing.
  9. Make some icing. A little cream cheese would be awesome, but I didn’t have any. Mine is made of raspberry juice (drained from my thawing berries), a little yogurt, vanilla, and powdered sugar. It sounds weird, but it’s not — I promise.
  10. Ice your rolls, remove them to a pretty plate, think how nice it is to have such an impossibly sticky and decadent treat for breakfast, and have a happy, sappy Valentine’s Day.

Sweets for my Sweet

I imagine that, for most people, the holiday season is a pleasant, if somewhat faded, memory by now, that gifts have been given and received, put into use or set aside in some secret corner for good will donations or future regifting. Though my cozy time at home with family is behind me, I’m still working on the gifting aspect, at least as far as my guy is concerned. Last year, Shawn and I were not together on Christmas, so we started a mini-tradition of exchanging gifts on New Year’s Day instead. Even though we spent Christmas together this year (eating my momma’s farmer’s cheese pancakes, walking in snow with hilarious dogs running rampant, feasting with family and sweet, familial friends…an excellent day, really), we liked the idea of exchanging gifts on another special day, back in the quiet of our Brooklyn apartment, just us two.

Exchanging gifts later also bought us a little more time. For me, that meant more time to think and think about what to make for Shawn and, for the most part, to come up short. Somehow, there was nothing in my crafting repertoire that seemed quite grand enough for my very sweet and supportive boyfriend, and I did not really have the time to embark on a great big project for him anyway. Eventually, I opted for a collection of smaller things, a booklet of monthly IOUs, things I could make or things we could do together, most of them free or very affordable (I don’t really have to shell out for anything in the book until October). He’s no great lover of grandeur anyway.

closed book

open book

I borrowed the matchbook style of the book from Laura at Betula ‘Loo, whose Giveaway Day giveaway I was lucky enough to win. She fills hers with blank paper and bills them as mini-scrapbooks, and I won two of them along with some other lovely paper goods, and they are adorable.

First up in the year of goodies: Homemade peppermint patties. Shawn loves peppermint patties, and I stumbled across a recipe recently and knew he had to have them. I love the idea of making typically packaged goodies at home, without the addition of unpronounceable ingredients. I read through several recipes online and modified slightly, and Shawn and I were both pleased with the results. They took a little bit of time, but only because it’s a good idea to let the filling set up a little before coating them in tasty, tasty chocolate.

Homemade Peppermint Patties: Ingredients

  • 2 1/4 cups powdered sugar
  • 1 1/2 Tbsp. butter
  • 3 Tbsp. evaporated milk
  • 1/4 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 2 tsp. peppermint flavoring*
  • 8 ounces dark chocolate
  • a little dab of shortening (optional)

*I actually purchased peppermint flavoring for this, which is basically peppermint essential oil thinned out in a vegetable oil base. I was worried that using straight essential oil would be too strong, but I ended up gradually increasing the flavoring to at least 2 teaspoons. If you have essential oil on hand (make sure it’s real essential oil, safe for food, and not some kind of house fragrance oil), I think it would be fine to use that here. Start with just a couple of drops, taste, and add more as needed.  Also, I used vanilla. I thought it would be good. In the end, these things are so minty fresh that I’m really not sure the vanilla adds anything. Skip it if you want.

How to Make Your Own Peppermint Patties:

Beat together your butter, evaporated milk, vanilla (if using), and peppermint. If you’re going the essential oil route, put in just a little peppermint. You can always add more later. Add powdered sugar a little at a time to make sure it incorporates well, and beat it until it’s smooth. If you need to tweak the flavoring amounts, go for it. I have never made fondant, but I imagine the texture is very similar to the final filling made here. It looks like this:

OK, so that looks like it could be ice cream. It’s not. It’s room temperature and rather firm. I used a little cookie scoop to dole out teaspoon-sized portions. If you don’t have a little scoop, just use a couple of spoons. They’re going to get flattened out, so don’t worry about how pretty they are. I put mine on some parchment paper, but I’m sure you’d be fine with foil, wax paper, a plain pan, etc.

low-light scooping

I then put them in the fridge to chill for a bit, put on a pair of creepy latex gloves, and rolled them into little patties. You don’t absolutely need gloves for this, but I found that the warmth of my hands without the gloves melted the filling a little, and things got messy fast. I put the little disks in the freezer for about 15 minutes and melted some chocolate with a dab of shortening. I read that the shortening would make the chocolate easier to work with, keep it shiny, etc., but I didn’t see any great benefit. Next time, I’ll just use straight chocolate and temper it the easiest way I know how — microwave until not quite melted through, then stir until all melted.

I’m not the tidiest dipper in the world, so I’ll spare you the photos of me dipping the disks in the chocolate. I used two forks and transferred the finished patties onto a separate baking pan, lined with wax paper. It looked a little like Jackson Pollock had guided my hand at times, but no matter. I wound up with an immensely satisfying tray of shiny chocolate patties.

gleaming, again in low light

I’m sure they would do just fine on the counter top, but I was feeling a little impatient, so I popped them in the fridge to set up fast. Or was it the freezer? I stuck them in just long enough to forget about them — they were ready by the time Shawn asked where they’d gone. We’ve been keeping them in the fridge, their numbers dwindling, on account of the butter in the filling. I suspect they would be OK in a regular cupboard, especially in this chilly weather.

Shawn was pleased with his peppermint patties, and he has been kind enough to share them with me. I haven’t had a York in ages, so I can’t say for sure how they compare, but Shawn claims that mine taste less processed, more purely minty-chocolatey (not his exact words). There’s a chance this is merely the power of suggestion, but I’ll take it. Make some yourself, and let me know how it goes.

Happy New Year!

It is a blue moon tonight, New Year’s Eve! I hope that you stay warm and cozy this evening and that you are able to catch a glimpse of the moon, fireworks, Times Square ball drop, or whatever lights in the sky suit your fancy.

A Facebook friend updated her status today to thank this past year for hard knocks and good times, both of which have felt abundant to me in 2009. Those simple words rang very true.  So good-bye 2009, with your pitfalls and pleasures, and good-bye first decade of me playing grown-up in this crazy world. Thanks, 2000’s, for teaching me so much about life and for sending me into the next decade armed with skills, dreams, excitement, and the support of some ridiculously terrific people.

May the coming year and the coming decade bring peace, good food, love, and many exciting craftables our way, and may the hard knocks grow fewer and farther between. Happy New Year!

Handmade Holidays!!

And now for something else I love…



November is Handmade Holidays month on the Sew, Mama, Sew blog. Every day, they will be posting ideas and tutorials for holiday presents that can be made at home. Actually, maybe my loved ones should not look too closely as I’m bound to use some of these ideas for the holiday season this year.

As for the rest of you, click on the image above to check out Handmade Holidays on Sew, Mama, Sew. If you’re not so crafty, they also have some links to pretty handmade things available for purchase. If, like me, you’re marginally crafty, but even more broke, I highly recommend trolling through these tutorials as some of them require far more inclination than ability, and there’s bound to be something you can make and be proud of.

Happy crafting!

Oh, and this is the third year that Sew, Mama, Sew has done Handmade Holidays. You can find recaps of the last couple of years here and here.