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 duct 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.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Beef Stew

Well October sure went by in a flash! Blogging sort of fell to the wayside, unintentionally of course. We've been dealing with a lot lately and I feel like I hardly have time to do much for cooking and baking let alone write about it. But I'm feeling refreshed and ready to get back to posting on a more regular basis. So here's to a more productive month!

I've always thought Sundays are the perfect day to spend a little extra time in the kitchen creating a nice meal for your family. It's generally the one day of the week where we slow down a bit and try to relax. A few weekends ago that's exactly what I did. I spent part of my afternoon preparing this hearty stew for us to enjoy.

Now normally during the work week I would toss everything into the crock pot and let it cook on low all day while we're gone. But when I'm able to, I love letting this simmer on the stove top in the dutch oven. It warms up the house and the aroma is wonderful!

The stew is chock full of vegetables we love like potatoes, celery and carrots. Served with warm rolls, it's a perfect meal for a chilly day. I can't wait to make it again.

Beef Stew

1-1/2 lbs. stew meat
1 tbsp butter
2 garlic cloves, minced
3 tbsp tomato paste
2 cups beef stock
1 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
pinch of sugar
3 carrots, peeled and chopped
2 celery ribs, diced
4-5 potatoes, peeled and chopped
salt and pepper, to taste
1 tsp dried thyme

In a large stock pot, melt butter over medium heat. Season stew meat with salt and pepper and then add to the pot. Brown meat on each side. Once browned remove to a plate and set aside. Add in garlic cloves and let cook for about one minute. Add in tomato paste and stir. Gradually add in beef stock while stirring constantly. Add stew meat back into pot along with Worcestershire sauce and sugar.

Toss vegetables in as well as thyme and season with salt and pepper. Cover with lid and let simmer for about 3 hours. Vegetables should be tender and meat cooked through. Add in additional beef stock if needed. Serve warm with dinner rolls. Serves 4-6

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