CHRISTMAS, GATHERINGS, HOLIDAY

Setting the Table (For the Christmas Season- Red & Golds)

A Vintage Nativity found in a local antique store for $15; faux or fresh evergreen branches, a silk rose with gold and red velvet ribbon purchased many years ago and a Dollar Tree gold tone jingle bell hot glued to a mini clothespin.

It’s that time of year when the boxes of Christmas decorations are pulled out of the attic or storage and the decorating begins. I’m sure like me, you have some items in those boxes that you’ve either held on to year after year, or some vintage items passed down from family members, that may or may not make the cut for this year’s displays.

This is a perfect time to look through those collected items to create your Christmas tablescape. This issue is to show you that making the table look beautiful doesn’t have to cost a lot, and that you can use things you already have to make a creative display for everyone to enjoy.

Same dishes, same napkin fold, added white glittered church ornament from the Dollar Tree.

The examples in my photos all have the same white tablecloth with gold polka dots, plain white gold rimmed china plate, a gold charger (from the Dollar True); gold tone flatware and gold rimmed glasses. Below each photo is a description of what was used to create each presentation.

The only important thing to remember, is to keep the centerpiece area low so that your guests can see and converse easily. Candlestick or votives are also a beautiful alternative to the battery twinkle lights, but in my situation I have an air conditioning vent that blows over my dining room table and usually blows the wax all over the place. So I only use candles that have a glass cylinder around them to protect my tablecloths or when I don’t need to have the a/c on – weather permitting. In the south we never know if it’s going to be hot or cold for Christmas. Always consider your elements in your room and ways to prevent small disasters.

Different napkin fold topped the same gold tone jingle bell. A red velvet wired ribbon wrapped around the charger. Centerpiece same evergreens with gold and red vintage glass ornaments and golden tree place card holders purchased at Homegoods.

Faux evergreen branches work just fine, but fresh branches can be picked up at the local hardware store and Christmas tree lot for free. Yes – places like Home Depot have a large wood bin next to the tent where the trunks of trees are being trimmed, with free fresh branches for the taking.

Berry branched napkins (from Homegoods), an embroidered Christmas cocktail napkin and Christmas ornament (frame) that a name or picture of your guest can be inserted as a place card. (Wouldn’t it be fun to have photos of everyone on Santa’s lap as a child?)

I often use place cards, just to mix up my group. The same people tend to sit together and I want everyone to visit with a family member or friend they haven’t seen in a while.

For the centerpiece, I used my small collection of Hallmark 1980’s village buildings, a clay timber cottage that was a gift from a friend who sent it from Germany, same faux evergreens, a couple of small red glass ornaments and three sets of battery operated mini string lights. I also swapped out the tablecloth for a muslin and gold stitched version and a table runner with a Christmas village, both from Homegoods.

To elevate this village landscape one step more, I snipped a few roses from my knockout rose bush and tucked them randomly into the evergreen branches.

Evergreens and lights remained, Spode round gift box tied with red ribbon, topped with the knockout roses, a trumpet ornament and two large instrument ornaments.

A string of multiple sized gold toned jingle bells added to the evergreen.

Clipped jingle bell on top of cocktail napkin.

Changed out the jingle bell clip for that silk white rose with gold and red velvet ribbon and clipped the jingle bell to the floral arrangement.

One last version, a golden angel playing a violin and an angel wing ornament. My book club read a Christian fiction novel a few years ago that was filled with angels. I found these wings on sale at a local gift shop after Christmas and bought one as a favor to give each of my members.

With a rose bud.
Without a rose bud.

I could probably find many other ways to use this same place setting. If your collection includes items of the same color tones, you can easily mix and match items, tuck in pops of color and create themes. With a little thought, you can use the same items for years to come in different ways and no one will ever know it isn’t new. I hope these example inspire you to create your own beautiful Christmas tables.

FRIENDSGIVING, GATHERINGS

Figgy Plum Friendsgiving 2022

This year, my party planning was thrown off by a kitchen island renovation, and it’s taken me a little while to channel my creative energy and get back to entertaining. It seems this has also been the year that most of my group (including myself) scheduled a much needed vacation after the long pandemic concerns, making it harder to get the group together. Fortunately, we’ve all settled down and I’ll have a full table of guests for this year’s Friendsgiving.

Each year I try to draw from a fruit and/or a color that inspires my table decor and menu. Last year apples were the theme. This year I was inspired by the bouquets of purple, burgundy, maroon, blush, plum, and cream flowers at the market and chose to create a “figgy plum” themed table and menu.

I tend to pick fruits, flowers or vegetables that are in season for about two weeks before my scheduled party and then they are nowhere to be found the actual week of my event! A good plan always requires a little flexibility, but I was thrilled to find a few plums the week before and fresh figs the day before my event. The universe has been kind and given me everything I imagined.

Colorful place cards and this plum cut glass candle by Rachel Zoe were part of what dressed up my table.

Braided placemat, gold charger, Royal Stafford pheasant dinner plates (England), black “cmg” bowls (Portugal), purple table runner and cloth napkins all from Homegoods.

A week prior to the scheduled event, I stocked up on what I could find and stored everything in the refrigerator (including flowers). I could only find small plums (but dark black plums were nowhere to be found) and plumcots. As an alternative, large seedless black grapes provided that moody dark plum color I wanted to achieve. Figs are so perishable I had to wait until the day before the luncheon to purchase them.

THE FLOWERS

These copper bowls with floral oasis (hot glued to the bottom) and chicken wire were used for the centerpieces. The bowls had an original tag on the bottom from Thirstystone for $33.00 each, but at Homegoods they were $6.99 each. Always love a Homegoods deal!

THE TABLE DECOR

Silver bowls collected from antique stores and Rachel Zoe plum colored cut glass with citrus scented candles from Homegoods. (The breakfast table.)

I have ten guests (eleven including myself). I can sit ten tightly at my dining room table, but not eleven – for more comfort I’m setting up three, myself and two of my helpers) at the breakfast table on the other side of the room. We are up and down so much from serving and taking dishes away, that it’s less disruptive to the main table and easier if we are together. None of these events could succeed without the loving help of my sister team of Lanie and Caryl.

While we were sitting at a separate table there were no shortcuts when decorating it. I wanted my two friends (also my guests) to enjoy the same beautiful rich colors of the flowers, fruits and candle just like the others. So the breakfast table had all of the same elements.

Silver plated antique store finds – bowls and creamer filled with large black grapes and figs.

THE PLUM FRENCH BRANDY SANGRIA

French brandy with plums, cinnamon sticks and star anise.

Three to five days before the event, start the plum brandy. I used an extra large mason jar that could be sealed tightly. Place one plum and one plumcot (sliced into wedges), two cinnamon sticks and two star anise into two cups of French brandy (I used Trader Joe’s). Store in the refrigerator to macerate.

  • Plum brandy (above chilled)
  • 1 bottle of Rioja or other red wine (chilled)
  • 1 25 oz bottle of sparkling water (chilled)
  • 2 to 3 cups of chilled apple cider (chilled)

One day before serving, mix all of the ingredients and divide into two large jars or pitchers. Place half of two sliced plums, two sliced plumcots, a handful of black grapes (halved) into each container and allow all of the ingredients to macerate for at least 24 hours.

One hour prior guests’ arrival prepare the glasses: Fill each with sliced plums, pomegranate seeds, blackberries, black seedless grapes, fresh rosemary. When the guests arrive as host you can fill each glass with sangria or allow guests to fill their own glass.

Optional : One hour prior to your guests arrival, pour both containers into a beverage dispenser so guest can self serve and refill their glasses.

THE CHARCUTERIE BOARD

A nibble board for guests to enjoy with their sangria while waiting for everyone to arrive. It’s always a good idea to have a little something to eat while drinking alcohol.

From left to right caperberries, Mini basque sheep’s cheese, deli meats, Spanish manchego cheese, blackberries, cornichons, soft blue gorgonzola, and Trader Joe’s pumpkin cranberry and fig olive crackers.

FIGGY PLUM MENU

AUTUMN CRUNCH SALAD WITH QUINOA

WITH FIG BALSAMIC DRESSING

The recipe will be shared in an upcoming edition of “Simply Elevated”.

ROASTED SWEET POTATO AND FIG SOUP WITH CRAB

Those who are familiar with Erin French of The Lost Kitchen will recognize this method for serving soup. The bowls were set out across my kitchen island filled with a mound of fresh Louisiana lump crab, microgreens, edible flowers, a swirl of lime creme fraiche and a parmesan crisp. After the salad course, a bowl was placed in front of each guest with instructions to wait for the soup to be poured.

The soup that was prepared two days before was reheated. The juice of a lime was added and some heavy cream. The hot soup was ladled into a white pitcher and poured into each bowl at tableside (Erin French style).

The recipe for this can be found in the most recent Simply Elevated post (Fall Soup)

DESSERT: PLUM, FIG AND FRANGIPANE TART

WITH FRESH WHIPPED CREAM

To end the meal, I made simple puffed pastry tarts cut into squares filled with frangipane, fig butter, sliced plums and one slice of fresh fig with the corners pulled together over the top. All were prepped before everyone arrived and placed in the refrigerator until the soup course was served.

During that course the trays were pulled from the refrigerator, brushed with egg wash, sprinkled with chocolate sea salt and baked 25 minutes. Fresh from the oven each placed on a plate, dusted with a mixture of powdered sugar and Chinese five spice with a side of fresh Chinese five spice whipped cream.

This very low sugar fresh fruit dessert was a great way to end our fall themed menu, featuring the end of season plums and figs while filled with gratitude for another year of books and wine shared with these special friends in a celebration of Friendsgiving.

FALL, FRIENDSGIVING, SIMPLY ELEVATED

Fall Inspired Soup: Simply Elevated

The first weekend in November, I will be hosting my annual Friendsgiving luncheon for ten guests. Inspired by the warm fall colors of a floral bouquet with shades of plum, burgundy, purple, and cream, I decided on a Figgy Plum menu. Figs and plums are both at the end of their season, naturally just before my scheduled date. I managed to find some plumcots, a few plums and dried figs to make this menu work.

A couple of days before my scheduled luncheon, I’ve made the soup, stopping after the purée process. I will add the cream and lime after rewarming just prior to serving.

Roasted Sweet Potato & Fig Soup with Crab

This recipe will serve 4 to 6 depending of the thickness you choose and the size of the bowl.

4 medium sized sweet potatoes 

1 medium onion (sliced) 

1 head of garlic (pre- roasted) **

Olive oil

4 – 6 dried figs (chopped)  – if you can’t find dried figs, a ½ cup of fig preserves can be substituted

4 -6 cups chicken or vegetable stock

1 teaspoon kosher salt (or more to taste)

Ground black pepper

1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes (spiciness to your liking)

½ cup heavy cream or half and half

2 large limes

Crème fraiche (1 container about 4-6 oz)

1 plastic condiment squeeze bottle with screw on top

Parmesan (crisps) can be purchased or made *** see link below for recipe (can be made ahead)

Lump crab meat (optional)

Fresh edible flowers, microgreens and/or fresh herb leaves such as flat leaf parsley or mini Thai basil leaves (optional)

This recipe requires some time, but results in added flavor.  I keep a jar of garlic confit (**garlic cloves roasted in olive oil until sweet and soft) in my refrigerator that helps speed up the process and I caramelize my sliced onion is a non-stick pan on the stove.  But if you don’t have roasted garlic and would rather not caramelize the onions on the stove you can do the following.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit

Drizzle olive on lightly on to a rimmed, foil lined baking sheet. ( If everything does not fit in one even layer, a second prepared sheet can be used).

Cut sweet potatoes in half lengthwise and place face down on the tray. Pierce each potato on the skin side several times with the point of a knife.

**Place a head of garlic into aluminum foil, drizzle generously with olive oil and tightly close and seal the foil around the garlic, place on baking.

Peel and slice the onion into about ¼ inch slices and spread (one layer) on baking sheet.

Lightly drizzle everything with olive oil.

Bake for 25 minutes and check onions (they may require stirring to ensure roasting or they may be golden enough. If golden remove and place in the blender –waiting on the rest of the ingredients and to limit dirty dishes).

Continue to bake potatoes and garlic for another 15 to 20 minutes. ( Time may vary based on size of potatoes and differences in ovens, until potatoes are soft when pricked and garlic is soft.)

Meanwhile – prepare Crème fraiche

Zest one lime onto a board (or turn the microplane upside down and zest, the zest will remain on the microplane to easily slide into the opening of the squeeze bottle)

Scoop the Crème fraiche into a small zip bag.  Cut one of the bottom corners, twist the top tightly and press contents like a pastry bag into the squeeze bottle. (easier method than using a spoon to transfer to the bottle.)

Cut the lime in half and add the juice of one half of the lime.  Reserve the other half for later.

Close the squeeze bottle tightly and with finger over the pointed top hole, shake until well combined.

Squeeze onto a piece of the foil to check consistency and determine if loose enough to swirl on top of the served soup. (It should not be watery just loosened to easily squeeze out. If too watery, place in the refrigerator the it to firm up a little).

Next:

Remove roasted potatoes, garlic and onions if still on the sheet, from the oven and allow to cool to room temperature (or cool enough to handle)

Using a teaspoon scoop the flesh from the skins and place in the blender with the onions.

Squeeze the soft roasted garlic from their skins on to the foil (to ensure no skins get into the pulp) and then place the roasted garlic pulp into the blender

Add chopped dried figs, some of the stock and puree. 

Add salt, black pepper, red pepper flakes.  Process.  Add additional stock to achieve the thickness you prefer and continue to season to taste.

Pour the pureed vegetables into a large pot and simmer to warm to preferred temperature, stirring frequently to avoid sticking to the bottom on the pot. When completely warmed until fully combined. Here’s where I recommend tasting the soup and adding any additional salt if needed.

Add the juice of the remaining 1½ limes just before serving.  Taste for seasoning and taste make sure there was enough lime to brighten the soup up.

Parmesan crisps: (optional – serve with the soup or a side salad)

Parmesan Crisps Recipe | MyRecipes

To serve:

Ladle pureed soup into bowl

Squeeze a swirl of lime crème fraiche

Stick in a parmesan crisp

Add 1 ½ tablespoons of crab (float on top)

Garnish with edible flowers and microgreens or fresh herb leaves

To serve Erin French style: (The Lost Kitchen)

A wider shallow bowl would be required for this presentation (rather than a cup sized version).

Swirl lime crème fraiche into the bottom of the bowl

Place small mound of crab to one side / sick parmesan crisp into the crab mound

Garnish with edible flowers/ microgreens/herbs

(Place bowls in front of each guest)  Pour pureed soup from a pitcher into the bowl until just below the crab mound.)

I will share the rest of our Friendsgiving Menu in my next post, until then enjoy this beautiful Fall weather wherever you may be! Thank you for stopping by!

FALL, GATHERINGS, TRAVEL JOURNAL

Fall Foliage Weekend Getaway (State of Georgia) 2022

Autumn or Fall is my favorite time of year. It’s the most colorful and inviting of all seasons filled with an intense kaleidoscope of every shade of orange, mellon, paprika, cantaloupe, peach, pumpkin, squash, yellow, gold, red, plum, eggplant, chocolate and evergreens that can go on and on in description forever as far as the eye can see. The air is lighter, crisp and cool, with invigorating breezes that encourage outdoor activities and road trips to encircle ourselves with all of its beauty and comfort.

I grow excited at the first cold snap that encourages me to pull out my cozy sweaters and boots, only to be disappointed a couple of days later when the temperatures rise again causing me to abandon them feeling teased by a temporary glimpse at Fall such as it is in the South.

In mid-October I enjoyed a wonderful long weekend visiting family in the northern suburbs of Atlanta. The weather cooperated with cold crisp nights and mornings that then comfortably warmed as the day progressed. I was introduced to the beautiful Georgia mountains where the color was in its early stages of transforming, pleasantly advancing slightly more each day. We visited several of my cousin and her husband’s favorite wineries (I’ll call research), an apple orchard, several antique shops and a grist mill with a lovely burbling creek that powers it.

Their favorite wineries included a beautiful landscape with a relaxing environment, a selection of wines to try by the glass or in a sample flight, and live acoustic guitar and vocalist playing country or classic rock.

The view was often reminiscent of parts of California (where I grew up) that I ‘ve missed so much. Mountains in the distance are not something seen in southern Louisiana and offer lovely weekend drives for recharging and fresh air.

The Nora Mill and Country Store was a quick stop on our way to Helen, Georgia for their Octoberfest that begins in late September and continues throughout the entire month of October. We arrived on an early Sunday morning, hoping to beat the crowds that were sure to arrive as the day progressed. We enjoyed an outdoor lunch and before leaving I had to have a piece of authentic black forest cake!

Authentic Black Forest Cake

On my list of things I wanted to do during our visit was antique shopping. My cousin and her husband enthusiastically and successfully I might add, helped me in my quest to start a silver spoon collection, I call tasting spoons. What is a tasting spoon? Those of you who may be a fan of Ina Garten, may have seen the container of silver spoons on her counter that she uses to taste the seasoning of her food during it’s cooking process. I planned to search through Paris flea markets one day to start my collection, but having not made that trip yet, I decided to look for spoons from the various places I’ve traveled.

The second spoon (these are all tablespoons) from the left was recently purchased in a shop not far from where I live. The rest of the spoons were found mostly by my cousin’s a husband who was on a mission to send me home successfully equipped. The most interesting of those he found is the last one on the right and below, found in a shop across the street from the grist mill. Once back in the car, I had a closer look and noticed that it looked like arms wrapping around the back to the front.

A tag was attached to help locate information about the pattern, Fraget Plaque Russian, however a quick internet search lead to the pattern where one site calls it Gargoyle.

In another search I found several for sale, but none with the exact same symbol in front of the Fraget name. One stated: “For those who don’t speak French, the pattern name – Peau de Lion – simply means Lion Skin which is what is being portrayed on the flatware and hollowware in this pattern. It was supposed to recall the lion skin worn by the mythical Hercules. The pattern was designed by Charles Rossigneux to be shown at the 1867 Paris Exposition. It was created by several companies though I think that Christofle and Fraget (Russia & Poland) were more prolific than Gorham. I have seen the Christofle and Fraget examples and I noticed that there are some small but definite differences in their versions of the pattern.”

Any way you look at it, it is an interesting find and great conversation piece.

The beginnings of a tasting spoon collection.

While the landscape of the Georgia mountains brought back memories of parts of California, the charming quaint mountain towns reminded me of New England.

Dahlonega

Our first day of sightseeing started in Dahlonega where we ate at a really cute Mediterranean restaurant Capers on the Square where we enjoyed a bowl of Greek chicken, lemon and rice soup that I’m trying to recreate and add to my weekly soup rotation.

There were several cute shops and antiques stores that we also searched through and found a couple of spoons to add to my collection.

***Dahlonega is a small city in northern Georgia. Tasting rooms offering wines from regional vineyards cluster around 19th-century Public Square. Dahlonega Gold Museum, in the 1836 courthouse, chronicles mining in the area from the discovery of gold in 1828. Consolidated Gold Mine includes an underground mine from around 1900. Waterfalls, including towering Amicalola Falls, dot the mountains of north Georgia. Dahlonega, the seat of Lumpkin County, lies about sixty-five miles north of Atlanta in the Blue Ridge province. The town is closely associated with Georgia’s gold history; its name derives from a Cherokee word referring to the yellow color of gold.***

From the airport my cousin drove me to the little town of Marietta (Marietta Square) where we had lunch at Taqueria Tsunami (very good) and then strolled around the square stopping into the first of the antique shops during my time there.

While some may not associate northern Georgia as a place to enjoy the Fall foliage (at least I was completely ignorant to this location), it was a lovely way to enjoy the changing leaves, drink a little wine, listen to some great music and do a little antique shopping. I checked in with my cousin the following weekend and it does not appear that they have reached the peak of their season yet. She’s hopeful to see more color this coming weekend (the last in October) when her Dad is coming for a visit. It was beautiful, relaxing and a budget friendly way to enjoy nature and the magic of Fall.

My first buckwheat pancakes made with flour from Nora Mill Granary (purchased at Grist Mill & Country Store in Helen, GA). I used buttermilk in place of milk in my batter. These pancakes have no sugar – just a slight sweetness from a teaspoon of molasses. Drizzled with maple syrup and sprinkled with sweet pomegranate seeds they are light and tender. Perfect Fall🍁🍂🥞morning breakfast!

BOOK CLUB, Bookclub Menus

Book Club Meeting: “The Master Craftsman” by Kelli Stuart

Vintage Fabergu00e9 egg illustration by The British Library is licensed under CC-CC0 1.0

Our Social Writes Book Club selection for October 2022 was made by Pemmie. “The Master Craftsman” by Kelli Stuart is a beautifully written historical fiction novel highlighting Peter Karl Fabergé and his jewellery firm House of Fabergé, in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Commissioned by the Imperial family, Karl supervised the many designers and craftsmen, including two women as they created the over fifty elegant jeweled Easter eggs from 1885 to 1917. The first egg of 1885 delivered to the Russian Tsar Alexander III was given to his wife Maria Feodorovna as an annual gift and continued later by Tsar Nicholas II.

Stuart injects an intriguing current day treasure hunt for a missing coveted egg that reconnects a daughter and her mother with her estranged father, who orchestrates the hunt from his deathbed. A last attempt to connect with his daughter during the limited time he has left. Unexpected twists and turns concludes with the true treasure of all in hand.

Pemmie will host this meeting for our group, and while the plan will be hers, I shared that Russian black bread and chai appeared in the book more than a couple of times. I’m always seeking for food notes in our books in order to introduce myself and group to the flavors and traditions within the stories we read. A small attempt to erect a little life from the pages.

I found a recipe (in the link below) and told Pemmie I would give this bread a test bake, a little excited to see how it turns out. I’m a baker, but bread is not one of the techniques I’ve frequented. Fortunately this was basically a low maintenance version where the stand mixer did all of the kneading. (A bread machine would have simplified the process even further. ) I did not divert from the recipe, but I have noted a couple of tips from my experience.

https://www.allrecipes.com/recipe/7034/russian-black-bread/?utm_source=pinterest.com&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=social-share-recipe&utm_content=20220916&utm_term=7034

The hardest part of the process was finding the flours and caraway seeds. My pantry is filled with more things than the average person might have, but these ingredients were not among my inventory. I really didn’t want a five pound bag of bread flour either. After stopping into three or four different grocers, I found a one pound sack of both the bread and rye flours and a reasonable priced jar of caraway seeds. I tried to borrow some dark Karo syrup from a neighbor (needing only 2 tablespoons), but they didn’t have any. Karo syrup is one of those ingredients like molasses that ends up being used once and then the bottle sits in the pantry for years. (Much like this bottle of caraway seeds will also.)

The recipe was extremely simple, adding all ingredients except for the softened butter to the mixing bowl and using the dough hook, kneading for 10 minutes. Then the softened butter is added for another 5 minute kneading (again with the dough hook). The recipe didn’t warn what to expect of the finished dough, but I will say that it’s very sticky. It also didn’t rise as much as I thought it would.

BAKING TIP: Sometimes you learn a tip from a baker and if you don’t bake frequently, it’s easily forgotten when you decide to take a stab at baking again. This is a tip I remembered. When removing the paper from your softened stick of butter, fold the sheet (butter side) together and store in a zip bag in your refrigerator. When a recipe calls for greasing a bowl or pan, take out the buttered sheet at the beginning of the baking process – the butter softens quickly. Use the remaining butter from the sheet to grease your bowl or pan and while not wasting the small amount that remained on the paper.

The softened butter wrapper’s remaining butter used to grease the bowl and loaf pans.

TIP: I didn’t get a double rise out of my dough. It was more like a single rather than double rise of the original dough. I even let it sit in a warm oven for another 30 minutes (the recipe started with 1 hour so my total was 1 1/2 hours) and then when I prepared to cut the dough into two, placing half in each loaf pan, I had to use more than a sprinkling of bread flour to handle it. Make sure your hands are dusted as well as the surface. The dough is sticky. The second proofing didn’t look like it had much of a rise, so again I left the loaf pans in a warm oven (170 degrees F) for another 20 minutes to get the slight rise in the picture above. It filled the loaf pan more than rose.

While I was concerned that the bread would be a flop, it turned out beautifully. I should have used the bread splitter tool that I bought a year ago (that I forgot I had). The split would have formed at the top rather than the side, but it still turned out great.

After allowing it to cool for about 10 minutes, I used a serrated bread knife to slice a piece and was thrilled to see the airy soft texture and knew it was well baked. (Hopeful Paul Hollywood would agree- but not necessarily give me a handshake! Lol)

A warm steamy cup of chai latte’ (my favorite by the way) was all I needed to complete the black bread and chai experience. The black bread has a bitter slightly sweet note that comes from the combination of the small amounts of brown sugar, corn syrup, unsweetened cocoa powder and apple cider vinegar. The carraway, fennel seeds and rye flour add the savory note reminiscent of rye bread. Interesting ingredients and flavor.

One of my taste testers drizzled it with honey. The blogger said it was good with cheese, but didn’t state what kind of cheese. For now I’ve carefully wrapped up the second bread and placed it in the freezer until our meeting in early October. We will rewarm it on the day of the meeting and let everyone choose their own way to savor it.

While chai tea would be a good choice, I also found this chai cocktail made with chai and Russia’s beloved volka. The addition of Kahlua (a coffee flavored liqueur) creates a cocktail take on the dirty chai, where coffee is added to the tea with milk. My book club gals love a fun cocktail.

Use the leftover concentrate, by warming a half cup of concentrate and separately a half cup of milk – then foam the milk with a frother and top the concentrate in a mug for a chai tea latte. It’s the perfect fall morning drink with a big spicy morning inside hug. It’s my favorite!

In lieu of the chai syrup recipe in the link, I used the chai tea concentrate sold by most grocers in a quart carton by Oregon Chai , but there are other versions by Tazo and a small bottle that works perfectly sold at Trader Joe’s that works just fine and does the same job. If you don’t have a bottle of Kahlua – liquor stores like Total Wine, sell smaller bottles that will provide the amount you need and not leave you with a bottle that will sit around for years to come unused.

Cocktail recipe in the link below.

https://www.halfbakedharvest.com/vanilla-chai-tea-white-russian/

The rest of Pemmie’s plan will be a surprise, even to me, which adds an excitement and energy to the day filled with good conversation, laughter, food and spirits!

Pemmie’s table setting, not just because it is Fall, but because Russia is one of the biggest producers of sun flowers!

Bird’s Milk Cake (Ptichye Moloko)

https://momsdish.com/recipe/210/birds-milk-cake

LAGNIAPPE

A Summer Home Project – Kitchen Island Renovation

The original center counter design.

Hello followers! I’m sure you may be wondering why I haven’t posted any parties lately. A pending renovation of my kitchen island prohibited me from scheduling any parties for the past few months. I’m sharing what has been going on, and what I feel will be a game changer in available counter space for cooking and entertaining.

I never quite understood this high/low counter top-bar design. Some say it was to hide your sink – from what? It’s still out in the open! In any case it is what the builder’s design provided when I bought my home. My neighbor had her’s leveled into an actual kitchen island and it inspired me to do the same.

First I had to decide how I wanted this revamp to look, and that took more time than I originally expected (a couple of years). Something so permanent requires a lot of thought, and time to imagine what the end result may look like. After all it will last for years to come, so I’d best be happy with it! I had a budget in mind, which of course was greatly exceeded (with everything costing more these days). Still I knew the cost over time would only grow and if I didn’t move forward with it, I would regret it in the future.

Before with bar seating.

My cabinets are already very dark and the granite is very busy. (Basically the only choices provided at the time of construction). To lighten this up a bit, I thought and searched a long time before deciding to add this curio chest to fill the large blank wall on one side of my kitchen. It provided additional storage for my many white serving platters and bowls, but no additional counter space. It also added a much needed brightness to the kitchen.

The curio cabinet that inspired the kitchen island design.

With my curio cabinet as inspiration, I wanted to renovate the island to match the two toned color palette and slightly distressed design. The width of the cabinetry would be expanded out to meet the ends of the pony wall, making room for a large drawer to store a hidden garbage pail and move my small narrow cabinet (used to store my baking sheets and cutting boards) to the other side of the island.

To ensure that I was correctly communicating what I wanted to the contractor, I created the above sketches that he said where very helpful.

I searched for antique corbels with no luck. I didn’t want it to look as distressed as the first photo, but the vintage feel was appealing and I wanted to add a little distressing to match the curio. Basically I wanted this island to be one of a kind and resemble a piece of furniture rather than traditional cabinetry.

Due to the addition of a farmhouse style apron sink (but in a stainless steel brass color), my existing cabinets could not be reused. The doors under the sink were too tall and couldn’t be refinished to achieve the look that I wanted (similar to the curio).

Before and after the demo.

My contractor constructed the cabinet sections of the island offsite, and then demoed the existing cabinetry to replace it with the newly designed pieces from my sketches. Modifications to the sketch were made as it came together where necessary.

Garbage can drawer.

The first piece to be completed and installed was this drawer to store a garbage container and enough room to store a supply of garbage bags. No more ugly visible garbage can.

Shiplap was first stained and then painted in a color similar to my curio, so that when a little distressing is added, the stained color will show beneath. At least that was the plan, but when the sanding of areas was applied, the stain did not show through at all, it went straight down to the raw wood, but still gave the appearance we were trying to replicate.

A stainless steel brass farmhouse sink, with two handle brass bridge faucet, brass covered electrical outlet and power button for the garbage disposal all added the pop of sparkle that blended in with the other brass and copper accessories throughout my kitchen and living areas.

Aged brass hanging rail and hooks from deVOL in the UK.

I will not be changing out my countertops at this time, but hope to do that in the near future.

Pestle and Mortar from Homegoods, gold clay bowls, mini copper cups (The Lost Kitchen).

Sometimes a project that you imagine will go smoothly, has multiple setbacks that you can do very little to remedy. PATIENCE will be pushed to the extreme. The process and pieces that are needed don’t always come as easily as it may seem on HGTV. I’m a planner as you all know, so when the plan goes off course a lot of stress and aggravation rises to the surface by everyone involved.

A friend who witnessed my frustration first hand said, “It’s like giving birth to a baby. You have long periods of discomfort, but the end result is something you dearly love!”

  • Lyndhurst 2 handle bridge kitchen faucet with side sprayer in matte gold. – Ebay
  • Lordear 30″ x 21″ undermount kitchen farmhouse sink (gold) – Wayfair
  • InSink Earator (push button for disposal gold) – Perigold
  • Stain – Hampton Cottage TIS-058
  • Paint – Cameo White MG3-32 (Behr)
  • Hickory Hardware P2144-BGB American Diner Collection Cup Pull 3 Inch & 3-3/4 Inch (96mm) Hole Center, Center to Center, Brushed Golden Brass (on garbage drawer) – Amazon
  • Leviton PFUS1-BR Pop-Up Floor Box with Dual Type A, 3.6 USB Charger, 15 Amp Outlet, Brass (electrical outlet)

After many, many snafooz, I ended up with a different quartz countertop than I originally selected being advised on the day of installation that my original choice was discontinued. I’ve learned that renovations involve a lot of disappointing promises not kept, lip service and pivoting on materials. In the end the alternative quartz option the stone company offered was more expensive (but they did not charge me the difference due to the multiple forms of miscommunication on their part) and in the end may be a better look that I originally planned.

The top trim is hard to see without squatting and standing very far away to see it (and I’m very short), but it’s there.

I had two decorative tins leftover that match my backsplash, so to tie the island to the backsplash one was placed on each side and framed. Finally a little distressing was added similar to my curio cabinet.

  • Leviton PFUS1-BR Pop-Up Floor Box with Dual Type A, 3.6 USB Charger, 15 Amp Outlet, Brass (electrical outlet)

My original bar stools were now too tall and I sold them on Facebook marketplace to a very happy new homeowner, rather quickly. Bar stools vary in pricing and I didn’t want to buy anything overly expensive. I started shopping online for that high end look, at a low price. As always, I pinned multiple versions to a board on Pinterest (Loiret Kitchen Island inspiration); and looked at the photos over and over for a few days, trying to imagine how they would look in my space.

I finally decided on these Abbott 26″ Spindle Stool that I found the best price for on Overstock.com. I had a 15% off coupon, but of course more than a week later they went on sale for another 19% off. I’ve gambled in the past, waiting out a possible sale and the item I want ended up selling out and I couldn’t get it anymore. So I decided the overall price for these was reasonable enough with the discount and free shipping to move forward with my order. The stools do require some assembling, but it wasn’t difficult and I was very happy with the little added visual interest the spindled legs provided to the room.

https://www.overstock.com/Home-Garden/Bar-Stools/2023/subcat.html?featuredproduct=35976645&featuredoption=69404825&ci_sku=40047287-000-001&cnc=US&cid=317174&track=pspla&gclid=Cj0KCQjwguGYBhDRARIsAHgRm4-mYtS3KBDDTSm4znvfllTeUAjvvfvukEX3mX0W24AyGh7EHMYaTfwaAgFpEALw_wcB

I’m finally going to call this project complete, and moving on to party plans for the near future. Stay tuned! Let the parties begin!

LAGNIAPPE, SIMPLY ELEVATED, SUMMER

Spice Jar Refresh (A Weekend Project)

The summer heat has been especially brutal this year, but somehow my herb garden has managed to persevere. So much so, that the abundance has resulted in little bouquet deliveries to my neighbors from time to time including a little Mother’s Day gift this past May when my nasturtiums, tarragon and chives were still blooming.

In the colder months to come, when portions of the herb garden may go dormant, those dried herbs in the pantry are more frequently used. How old are the dry herbs in your pantry? Do you even remember when you bought them? Now is a great time to empty those jars and refill them with freshly dried herbs.

To start I cut bunches of each herb (in the garden) and give each bundle a good trim, discard dead or discolored stems and wash well setting the bundle on a tray lined with paper towel to slightly dry.

For the drying process I used the microwave oven, and two paper plates, with one method for thyme, oregano and tarragon and a different method for rosemary and sage. I didn’t dry basil or mint, as those are always best fresh, but I did share a use for using up the large crop of sweet basil below to add elevated flavor to your recipes.

For thyme, oregano and tarragon, I simply laid the washed stems in a small bunch in the middle of the paper plate and then covered it with another paper plate. Place covered plate into the microwave and process for three 30 second intervals. This allows the herb leaves to slowly dry and maintain a green color without burning. Test your microwave (as they are all different) by checking the level of dryness after two 30 second processes. If your leaves are still slightly “fresh” or wet, process a third time and check again. Some may have to process it for less time and others may have to process it a little longer.

Once dried, using your fingertips, gently roll the leaves from the stems and discard the stems. Store the dried herbs into glass jars to prevent crushing.

For rosemary, pinch the stem with two fingers at the top and slide down to remove all of the rosemary leaves. Place the leaves between the two paper plates and process for two 30 second intervals. I found that this was dry enough for my liking and know that they will continue to dry over time in the pantry.

For sage, pull the leaves from their stems, stack three or four leaves and then roll tightly like a cigar. Thinly slice into strips (called chiffonade) and depending on the size of the leaves it may require slicing the strips in half.

Placing the chiffonade sage leaves between the two paper plates, process in 30 second intervals in the microwave watching for the level of dryness you prefer.

For many years, my Thanksgiving centerpiece has been a sage butter roasted turkey, with a sage apple cider gravy that requires both dried and fresh sage. Dried sage pressed together into coarse salt is rubbed all over the turkey skin and then placed in the refrigerator overnight. When baking the following day, it is based with melted butter and fresh chopped sage. Both the aroma and flavors are absolutely amazing! My freshy dried sage will be stored and ready for the big day.

https://www.bonappetit.com/recipe/sage-butter-roasted-turkey-with-cider-gravy

A practiced cook knows that recipes that go into the oven often call for dried herbs rather than fresh because they tend to better handle the heat and long periods of baking, but less amounts are used because the flavor of the herb intensifies when dried. The Fall and Winter seasons are usually enjoyed by savoring rich stews, roasted vegetables and meats that are often cooked in the oven. Having a pantry stocked with freshly grown and dried herbs is not only a tasty plan, but a thrifty plan since buying dried herbs can be very expensive.

If your garden is plentiful, the holidays are just around the corner. Why not consider gifting freshly dried herbs to friends and family as Christmas gifts? Purchase inexpensive jars or use small dollar store zip labeled pouches filled with freshly dried herbs and then nested in a small basket as a hostess or holiday gift is something the recipient can use and enjoy all year. If gifting sealed pouches of herbs, just as you have refreshed your spice jars, your friends and family can toss out the old dried herbs in their pantry and refill their jars with your gifted herbs. A jar of confit garlic and local fresh baked bread (if you don’t bake yourself) and or a jar of pesto (made with your basil) and encourage the least interested cook into creating something easy and flavorful.

Let’s not forget about the basil. I have both sweet basil and thai basil growing in my garden. Both have grown to nearly three feet tall and this is what they look like after a good trim. While dried basil is not something I personally use, a large amount of fresh basil can be used to make fresh pesto. Using a recipe from Pinterest, basil, garlic, lemon juice, toasted pine nuts, grated parmesan cheese and extra virgin olive oil whirled in a small food processor creates a bright and fresh pesto that is flavorful and delicious spread over grilled chicken or tossed in fresh pasta. It also can be stored in the refrigerator for a couple of weeks and can be spread on wraps or used to make a vinaigrette to toss on a fresh spinach salad. https://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/ina-garten/pesto-pea-salad-recipe-2040302

Sweet basil and spicy thai basil with lavender blossoms that the bees are enjoying.
Freshly made pesto.

For my last little project, I made confit garlic and garlic roasted olive oil. Recipes can be found on Pinterest, but for mine I did the following.

For confit: I used a mini ceramic bread loaf pan, and filled with two large garlic bulbs -cloves separated and peeled and then poured extra virgin olive oil close to the top of the pan. Also place on a small baking sheet to protect from spilling. Place in the oven at 250 degrees for two hours. Let cool and store in tightly sealed jar in refrigerator for a couple of weeks. Cover the garlic with the oil and if there is excess add to the roasted garlic oil bottle below.

For roasted garlic oil: I used the same mini ceramic bread loaf pan and sliced the top edge off of two garlic bulbs and placed the entire bulbs in the loaf pan. Fill with extra virgin olive oil, place on a baking sheet and bake at 250 degrees for two hours. Let cool to room temperature. I then squeezed the garlic from the bulbs into the confit jar. Use a coffee filter or cheesecloth folded into four layers and place inside a funnel and filter oil into a measuring cup. Using the same funnel and filter pour the filtered oil from the measuring cup through the cheesecloth again, into your final glass bottle.

Note: You can purchase peeled garlic cloves or break a bulb of garlic apart and place the individual cloves with peel into a tightly closed jar and shake vigorously until all of the peel comes off of the garlic.

How to use your garlic confit and roasted garlic olive oil.

Roasted or confit garlic is sweet and very flavorful. You can spread the soft cloves on breads to make homemade garlic bread, create a vinaigrette, add to soups, pasta or roasted chicken. Be creative and experiment. I had a loaf of freshly baked lucky seven grain bread that I sliced and spread the soft buttery roasted garlic cloves on one slice and caramelized onion chutney on the other slice with thinly sliced honey turkey breast that created a delicious turkey sandwich with intense elevated flavor.

One of my favorite things to do with the roasted garlic infused olive oil, is to drizzle it over fresh tomatoes, avocado or roasted potatoes (any roasted vegetables). Anything you would finish with a little drizzle of olive oil can also be drizzled with the rich garlic infused flavored olive oil.

Bakery Lucky Seven Grain Bread, Confit (roasted) garlic and thinly sliced deli honey turkey breast.

Whether it’s a hot sunny day or a rainy hot day that you are trying to escape, while staying indoors here’s a productive way to spend the afternoon preserving herbs and creating flavor filled pestos and oils to elevate your summer and future Fall and Winters dishes and maybe even create a few gifts for the holidays.

SIMPLY ELEVATED, SUMMER

Summer Pancakes (Simply Elevated)

My favorite summertime fruit is the peach, more specifically the white peach and even more so the saturn or donut peach. The donut peach is a squatty version that when eaten fully ripened, has an intense, juicy, sweet white peach flavor that for me is perfection.

Saturn or Donut Peach

Sunday mornings are my time for a break from the weekly routines, with an extra concentrated focus on prayer, gratitude, and rest that begins with a special breakfast. On this Sunday morning, I was in the mood to combine my favorite peach with pancakes.

For my simply elevated experiment, I started with my favorite pancake recipe published in 2012 in Martha Stewart Living magazine. While few changes were made to her original recipe (always the best choice for success), it’s the topping that elevates these pancakes with a fresh twist of white balsamic vinegar and fresh herbs.

Front (left), sage, spring onions, left rear sweet basil, right thai basil, with rosemary in front (right).

To ensure that I always have fresh herbs when needed, I planted a small garden that thrives throughout most of the year. Mint is kept in a pot (or it will take over the rest of the garden), while basil is a Spring and Summer herb that requires new planting in early Spring. Both also provide beautiful floral blossoms. Planting a small herb garden is also a budget friendly way to add fresh flavor to your recipes.

Summer Pancakes with Peach-Blueberry White Balsamic Maple Syrup

Prep time 20 -30 minutes makes 10 pancakes

(This recipe was adapted from Marthastewart.com Nectarine Pancakes https://www.marthastewart.com/909613/nectarine-pancakes

  • 1 3/4 cups all purpose flour
  • 3 1/2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 1/2 cups low-fat buttermilk
  • 2 eggs (room temperature)
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla bean (or extract)
  • 1 tablespoon butter (melted) and more for skillet
  • 2 tablespoons canola oil
  • 2 medium white or yellow peach (medium ripe -not too firm or too soft) sliced into rings –
  • 1 donut peach (small diced)- or white, yellow peach
  • 1 cup fresh blueberries
  • 1/4 cup pure maple syrup
  • 1/2 teaspoon white balsamic vinegar
  • fresh mint &/or sweet or thai (for a little spice) basil (chiffonade or thinly sliced) and more for garnish
  1. In medium to large mixing bowl whisk together flour, sugar, baking powder and salt.
  2. In a separate bowl whisk eggs, buttermilk, vanilla, oil and melted butter until thoroughly combined and then mix into the bowl of dry ingredients. Let sit for 10 minutes.
  3. With a paring knife slide peaches into 1/4 inch horizontal rings, pulling away from the pit.
  4. In a small bowl combine diced saturn peach, blueberries, maple syrup, white balsamic vinegar and chiffonade mint and sweet basil (set aside for serving).
  5. Heat 1 tablespoon butter in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Working in batches and adding more butter as needed, pour 1/2 cup batter into the pan (I used a large ice cream scoop), top each with a peach slice. Cook until bubbles form on the surface and underside is golden (about 3-4 minutes), then flip (you may have to hold the peach to avoid slipping) and cook until the second side is golden brown (3 to 4 minutes).
  6. Serve with peach blueberry white balsamic maple syrup and garnish with fresh mint and sweet basil.
  7. Review tips below before you start.

Vanilla paste is a little pricey, but not as pricey as vanilla beans and the overall quantity is greater and lasts longer. While vanilla exact is just as acceptable, vanilla paste is filled with those beautiful seeds from the bean and elevate the flavor in your recipes.

Peaches were used for my version of this recipe, but other stone fruits such as nectarines, apricots, plums and mangos are other options to experiment with. For the best fruit flavor, the fruit should be ripe, but not overly soft.

If you don’t have buttermilk, you can make some with milk and white vinegar or fresh lemon juice or use yogurt or sour cream. See the link below for alternatives. https://celebratingsweets.com/buttermilk-substitute/

I did try placing the peach slice in the pan first and pouring the batter over it. This caramelizes the peach a little more, but the weight of the pancake is less formed (cooked). When flipping the pancake, the cooked portion is thinner and weighted by the peach slice – so the balance is off and the peach can fall out. Feel free to try the version that best works for you.

To elevate the pancake experience I used one of my favorite ingredients, white balsamic vinegar. Using my saturn peaches that are soft, ripe and sweet, diced similar in size to making a chunky salsa (however more of whatever peach you have will create the same results), I then added my second favorite summer fruit, fresh sweet blueberries, a small amount of maple syrup and white balsamic vinegar tossed with fresh mint and sweet basil (or thai basil for a little spice). The vinegar adds an unexpected pleasant brightness to the combination and fresh new way to top our pancakes. The addition of more maple syrup is optional.

These fruit filled pancakes can be further elevated with a serving of crispy bacon on the side.

This summer, freshen up your Sunday morning breakfast pancakes by filling them with beautiful pitted fruits that are at their peak and surprise the family with a new bright, fruity and herbaceous topping they’re sure to remember.

MOTHERS TEA, TRADITIONS & TEA

Annual Mothers Tea Honoring Jane

The thing about time…

When we are young, we are so very busy. Busy getting an education, busy building a career, busy having and caring for children and their many needs and later activities, busy shopping for groceries, new shoes for the kids, hair appointments, doctor appointments, yard work, laundry, cooking, cleaning ….. and at the end of each week, there is still a list of things we still didn’t get done. It’s ok, we still have time, until we don’t.

When we are young we think we have an abundance of time just waiting for us to spend later. As a grandmother who has not yet retired (a couple of years away), time becomes more and more precious. My daughter, her husband and my three grandchildren live five and half hours away and between my work schedule, their work schedules and the ever growing busy activities of each grandchild as they grow into lives of their own, attempting to coordinate uninterrupted time together has become an impossible challenge.

I remember when my mother retired, she suddenly had time to spare and fantasized about her family all getting together to take a cruise or some kind of trip together. While she and my dad now had the benefit of time, my brother and I, and our children struggled to clear our schedules all at the same time to make this wish of her’s materialise. We all thought we still had time, until we didn’t.

My mom passed away at the age of 75 with pancreatic cancer. The biggest shock to all of us including her. She was certain she had so much more time, but time for her, had ended.

Mother’s Day is a day to celebrate our Moms, but when Mom has gone to live with the Lord everything changes. Those who have their adult children and grandchildren living near, may be blessed with an afternoon brunch, lunch or even barbecue to spend time with those you hold so dear to your heart for at least a day. For those like myself that live at a distance, the day is less about me and more about my memories of my Mom and the pride I feel for my lovely daughter who is a wonderful Mom trying to find time for forming my grandchildren into beautiful little people.

My Annual Mother’s Tea was formed to gather with friends whose Moms have also gone to be with the Lord, and offers us each a place to share memories and celebrate our mothers.

Held on the first Sunday in May (so as not to conflict with the actual Mother’s Day holiday), we all have a rhinestone framed photo of our mothers that I like to think of as their crowns; that are placed before us at each place setting.

Each year we select a name from a teapot and the following year I create a tea theme that celebrates and honors that mother. Over the years we have found common ground between our mothers from different generations and drawn memories from just taking the time to sit and listen to each others stories.

This year, for our 4th Annual Mother’s Tea, we honored Kelly’s Mom, Jane Peacock. At our very first tea, Kelly recalled a memory of collecting the dried seeds of marigolds so her Mom could replant them in her garden the following year. These seed packets were created from my garden at the end of last year’s season, to use as favors for this year’s tea.

Kelly’s Mom was an eclectic lady, with passions and interests that challenged me in my effort to capture her spirit on this special day. In my previous post https://socialinteractionsandparties.wordpress.com/2022/04/21/a-little-racey-beachy-peacock-mothers-tea/ , I explain the table decor which includes themes of peacock, beach and NASCAR.

I of course had to include some fresh marigolds, and the flowers that Kelly most associated with her Mom which were yellow roses and daisies. Daisies are not readily available in my area, so I used chamomile that resembles a floppy delicate miniature daisy in the floral arrangements. I used purple irises in memory of Lydia’s mother that we honored last year and some lavender from my garden.

The tea I chose met with the beachy theme that was carried throughout the table setting and some of the menu. This tea by Teavana, Beach Bellini was delicious. A couple of the ladies don’t like tea, and this was a perfect choice. I sweetened the pot with honey and the pineapple mango flavor was light and very refreshing. It is a perfect Spring or Summer time tea hot or cold.

While I’m honoring a specific mother, I do try to inject a little piece of each mother somewhere in the day. One friend said her mother loved pineapple sorbet that I put a small scoop of in a fluted glass and topped with champagne for a pineapple bellini cocktail.

THE MENU:

Strawberry Citrus Salad

This strawberry citrus salad with honey balsamic dressing was served in memory of Jane, who added strawberries to various salads and was what Kelly described as the first time she can remember having fruit in salad that she learned to love. A fresh nasturtium flower dressed up the colorful bowl.

Mixed spring greens and wild arugula, sliced ripe strawberries, naval orange segments, marigold petals, feta, toasted slivered almonds (chopped) and honey balsamic vinaigrette.

Finger Sandwiches:

Grilled Ham and Gruyere Cheese Sandwiches (Kelly’s memory of a lunch date with her Mom) at a diner called Mayberry’s in North Carolina.

Pineapple chicken salad wrapped in sweet brown bread tied with chives and chamomile flowers.

Cucumber Radish with herby creme fraiche on white bread when fennel fronds.

Pink peppercorn egg salad in crispy pastry cups with violas.

At the top: Jane’s favorite sandwich, roast beef on toasted rye (topped with onion chutney and tarragon blossoms.)

A Palate Cleanser…

A splash of Spring celebrated with fresh floral ice bowls created to serve a mango sorbet palate cleanser between the tea sandwich and scone courses.

The inside of one of the ice bowls. Each bowl is unique and different.

These coconut macadamia scones were served with the mango sorbet and a side of pineapple preserves. https://www.teatimemagazine.com/macadamia-coconut-scones/

My framed table photo of me and my Mom on the beach in Bermuda.

The Pastry Course

Fig, date and citrus filled pastry envelopes with edible one hundred dollar bills to capture a memory of letters from Mom filled with coupons $$$. The full story and instructions for how to make these can be found in my previous post. https://socialinteractionsandparties.wordpress.com/2022/04/26/pastry-letters-from-mom/

I also served small eclairs and small slices of gentilly cake (a white cake with whipped cream and berry filling) that I did not get a picture of. Kelly said her Mom loved eclairs, and another of our friends said her mother loved berries (so that cake was for her Mom.)

Little winks from Mom…. Kelly told us about a hidden tattoo her Mom sported of a happy face that I put on the place cards. Her daughter told me that the family always laughed about how her grand-mommy loved boiled peanuts. So I presented a serving in a little covered cup just to Kelly in elegant tea fashion that gave her a smile.

As a wink to me and my planning this tea, I was in a bakery where I purchased the pastry shells for the egg salad and on the counter was a basket of happy face cookies. This one with the wink felt like a sign from Jane in her fun and playful way of letting me know I had captured her spirit and that she would be near on this special day.

As Mother’s Day approaches and we are all grasping for time, make sure to clear your schedule now and then. Saying no to something just for one day can make all of the difference in the world for your memories in the future. Once time is up, you can never get it back. In loving memory of Barbara, Edwina, Helen, Jane, Kathleen, and Mary.

MOTHERS TEA, SIMPLY ELEVATED, TRADITIONS & TEA

(Pastry) Letters From Mom….

Love letters from Mom with a little “coupon” inside.

These Italian fig cookie filled pastry envelopes were created for my Annual Mother’s Tea to capture a loving memory my friend Kelly had of her Mom. She shared that her Mom used to write her little letters and stick $100 bills inside that she called “coupons”. (Referred to as coupons because her Mom used to hide the $100 bills in her coupon envelope so that her husband wouldn’t know.)

While the idea seemed simple to create, it took two tries to get the results I preferred and an effort to recall all of the little baking tips I’ve learned over the years that had to be applied. For the same results, it’s important to follow the tested tricks and recipe below:

  1. You’ll need an envelope to use as a template. Mine was from a box of thank you cards 4 1/2 ” x 3 1/4 “. Gently open the envelope to create a flat template.

2. One box of refrigerated pie dough (I used Pillsbury) will make 3 envelopes. Sprinkle your surface with a dusting of flour, remove the dough from the little sealed bag and gently unroll on the floured counter. In order for all of the pastries to look the same and slightly puff, gather the dough sheet into a ball, gently knead together until smooth and then roll it out -long enough for two envelopes using the templates to measure. With a sharp point of a knife, trace the template to cut out the dough. Knead together the scraps and roll out again to create the third envelope. (See the images below that show how the rerolled dough makes a fluffier risen product. )

Shown here – on the left dough rolled out as is straight from the package; on the right the dough was kneaded together and then rolled out – creating a slight puff and prettier end result.
A scalloped pastry wheel used to trim the top part
of the envelope that will remain unfolded.

3. I was surprised by the details I had to pay attention to when making these, and learned from mistakes I made on the first try. If you look at the template I used above, the top triangle of the template is very sharp and pointed, while the folded up bottom is rounded. To add a little cute design, I used a scalloped pastry wheel on the sharp top portion of the envelope that will remain unfolded, resulting in an open envelope. Now transfer the dough to a parchment paper lined baking sheet pan (only 2 fit on one sheet) and place the pan in the refrigerator for 5 minutes.

4) I decided to use my stamp set, that I bought for last year’s tea (I made my signature sugar cookies decorated with dried edible flower cookies and a stamping of each mother’s name), to stamp “Love Mom” on the outside of the envelope. Doing it correctly took to extra thought and practice.

Originally I folded the filled envelope and tried to stamp it, but because the surface was let’s say “bumpy” and soft, the stamp did not come out clear or legible. I realized I needed to chill the pastry first (after cutting out the template as instructed above) before stamping.

5. After chilling for about 5 minutes, turn the pastry over with the bottom section at the top (in my case the rounded end). Stamp the message – I used “Love Mom” with a heart so that when folded under – the words are facing the correct direction. See below that when the pastry is turned over again, when the bottom flap is folded up, the stamp is smooth and clear.

Sugar cookies decorated with dried edible flowers and every Mom’s name.

6. I then had to learn the correct placing of my filling. (Recipe further below.) At first I placed the filling over the entire rectangle that would form inside once folded. In the messy version above, you can see that the filing is exposed above the envelope pocket. On my second try I lowered the filling to just below where the side flaps would overlap. Fold in the side flaps and then the bottom flap up using a light brushing of egg wash to glue it in place. Using a fork, dock the top flap to eliminate puffing in the oven. Place the prepared pastries back into the refrigerator for 5 minutes.

Pastry with fig/nut filling and folded.
Then lightly brushed with egg wash and sprinkled with sanding sugar.

The top inside flap “docked” (pricked with a small fork) to prevent puffing,

7. Finally lightly brush egg wash on the outside and then sprinkle with sanding sugar careful not to fill in the stamped message. Place into a preheated oven (350 degree F) for 12 minutes. Read the tip below to address areas that bake at different timeframes.

IMPORTANT TIP: Carefully watch the baking process around 10 minutes. If you look back at the two examples of my first and second bake, you’ll see that because I didn’t dock the top portion it bubbled (puffed) and cracked. It also baked faster than the lower filled portion. So in my second try I docked the top to stop the puffing and after 10 minutes I placed a piece of aluminum foil over the top part to stop it from browning any further, and then baked for another 2-5 minutes for no more than 15 minutes. Everyone’s oven is different, so you’ll have to watch closely to see what happens in yours.

8. Finally, one last reference to my first and second bake pictures. Originally I glued the dried edible flowers to the pastry on to the pastry with egg wash (or water was used on the cookies). My flowers are so dark, that the baking process made them darker and not as pretty. So I decided to attach the dried flowers after baking using a little store bought icing. However, if you have lighter colors to use, the baking process works fine. My edible flowers are violas that were pressed between two layers of paper towel and then pressed together with two microwavable plates. The microwave drying time varies depending on how much water in in the flower. Usually for violas or pansies it can take between 5 and 7 minutes, but only dry in two minute intervals and check after the first five minutes. When complete they are dry and fragile and feel a little like paper. Just don’t touch the plate for about 5 to 10 minutes until it cools down.

For the final touch I needed the $100 bill tucked in. So for the pictures above I just copied a $100 bill on the printer and cut the ends off of each side to tuck in. I actually ordered edible $100 bills on Etsy that are made of frosting that I will cut and should (according to the instructions) slightly melt into the pastry AFTER the baking process. (Don’t judge me if I chicken out and use the paper version.)

While these pastry envelopes or letters were used to represent a memory of someone’s Mom, they would have also made a cute dessert for a book club read involving read letters (that happens often in historical fiction) or a cute Valentine dessert with something like a strawberry filling.

What you’ll need to make the pastry envelopes:

  • Pre-made pie dough (I used Pillsbury) 1 box makes 6 envelopes
  • 1 egg (scrambled in a bowl with a teaspoon of water – for egg wash)
  • White sanding sugar
  • Dried edible flowers (optional)
  • Printed images of $100 bill or you can order edible versions on Etsy (optional)
  • Letter stamping (purchased on Amazon also optional)

How to prepare and bake – follow the narrative above that provides tips learned for the best results. Make the filling below a day ahead. These pastries can be made a day ahead and stored in a tightly sealed container once completely cooled to prevent any moisture from forming.

Cucidati (Italian Fig Cookie Filling)

The Cucidati (that my Mom called Italian Fig Cookies) are popular here in Southern Louisiana and served at the annual St. Joseph Day Altars. They were a special coveted favorite of my Mom’s, so much so that she eagerly attended an altar or two each year to seek out her little gifted bad of Italian cookies. The filling came to mind as it isn’t runny and tucked inside the pastry is very reminiscent of the cookie itself.

Adapted from recipe in the link https://www.familytabletreasures.com/italian-fig-cookies-cucidati/

  • 1 Cup Dried Mission Figs or Calimyrna Figs ,stems removed and chopped, about a 6-7 ounce package
  • 1/2 Cup Pitted Dates ,Chopped
  • 1/2 Cup Freshly Squeezed Orange Juice
  • 1/4 Cup Candied Orange Peel ,or Orange Marmalade or Apricot preserves
  • 2 Tablespoons Granulated Sugar ,or honey
  • Zest from 1 Lemon
  • 1/2 teaspoon Chinese Five Spice (or 1/2 teaspoon Cinnamon)
  • 1/4 Cup Almonds
  • 1/4 Cup Walnuts
  • 2 Tablespoons Dark Rum, French Brandy, or Orange liqueur such as Grand Marnier

Add all ingredients to a food processor or blender and process until a paste is formed and no large chunks are left. Place in a bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Place in the fridge to chill for at least an hour but preferably overnight so ingredients can meld together.

Edible $100 bills.

Some may ask why go to so much trouble for one of many elements of this mothers tea, but my friends and I are making a special effort to bring back to life some of our favorite memories of our mothers that are no longer with us on Mother’s Day. If you’re feeling the void we all do on Mother’s Day, consider creating your own little tradition to honor your Mom year after year. You’ll feel her spirit present with gratitude.

Suggested Music:

“I Remember You”- Trisha Yearwood

“Supermarket Flowers” – Ed Sheeran

“The Best Day” – Taylor Swift

“Mother” – Kacey Musgraves

“Tell Mama” -Etta James

“Mama’s Kitchen” – CeCe Winans

“Ring Off” – Beyonce

“Turned to You” – Justin Bieber

“Mother Like Mine” – The Band Perry

“Mother” – Sugarland

“Don’t Forget to Remember Me” -Carrie Underwood

“Mom” – Garth Brooks

“God Must Have Spent ” A Little More Time on You-NSYNC

MOTHERS TEA, TRADITIONS & TEA

A Little Racey, Beachy, Peacock Mothers Tea

I’ve been putting together a plan for my 4th Annual Mothers Tea over the past few weeks. Little memories have been shared from tea to tea and I’ve tried to carefully listen and make notes to reference as each friend awaits for their year to honor their Mom. This year we will be honoring my friend Kelly’s Mother, Jane.

Marigolds

At our very first tea, Kelly told us that she had recently been planting marigolds in her vegetable garden, to protect against insects. As she was planting, she recalled an image of her mother collecting the seeds from marigolds in her own garden to replant the following year. Her shared memory stayed with me, and as my marigolds began to wither I collected their dried buds and created seed packets for each of our guests as a favor. (See the past post: https://socialinteractionsandparties.wordpress.com/2021/06/13/a-marigold-memory-of-mother/ of how I dried the flowers and made the seed envelopes in mid-June last year in preparation for this year’s tea.)

Marigold seed packets as party favors.

Every year, in preparation for the tea, I offer a list of questions to each friend to help generate memories of their Mom’s favorite things – from pastimes to favorite eats. I then do my best to give a nod to those interests, flavors and memories as part of the decor and menu. Sometimes the list is minimal and a clear direction, while others offer new challenges of interpretation. Kelly’s list presented a colorful and uncommon Mom with interesting passions. While I may not be able to incorporate all of her notes into the tea, I always do my best to capture the spirit of our honored Mom.

Beaches

Kelly’s Mom was a thalassophile who loved turtles. Beaches provide everything from “peacock” sunsets to seashells and turtles in the sand. So for the invitation I used a pretty image from a wedding invitation and cut out the center. After a lot of cut and pasting the image created a frame for my invite. (Reason for the undesired lines in the image.) I then glued small shells around the border for a 3D affect and a string a pearls to highlight Jane’s photo. (We only have 7 or so guests at each tea and I do my best to be thrifty where I can. A mailed invitation is not only more fun, but also gives my friend a keepsake. )

What is a thalassophile? A person who loves and is magnetically attracted to the ocean and the sea. Many people say they enjoy spending time at the beach, especially during summertime.

I used six beautiful scallop shells gifted to me several years ago at each place setting to capture the beach vibe and tied each plate with peacock blue ribbon for a pop of color. Plain glass plates were used for the guests and a peacock glass plate for Kelly and her daughter.

For one side of the table decor, I used a Barbie beach chair set on processed graham crackers with sugar for sand,chocolate turtles (made in a candy mold), seahorses and shells with a sprinkle of very tiny real shells. Lastly a sandcastle (a salt and pepper shaker set found at Cracker Barrel) to create a beach vibe. The beach chair was a dark pink that I toned down with a piece of ribbon to better blend in with the cool, soft blues of the decor.

Peacocks

Several years ago, Kelly told me that whenever she sees a peacock, she feels it’s a sign from her Mom. When I questioned what the connection was, she explained that her Mother’s maiden name was Peacock. Now every time I see stationary or other items with peacock feathers, I think of Kelly and her Mom. Clearly this symbol had to be at the center of my table.

Photo by NAUSHIL ANSARI on Pexels.com

It started with the invitation. To add a touch of “Peacock” I printed an image of a peacock feather, cut around it and then glued it over a peacock blue ribbon as a seal on the back of the envelope. To protect the shells from getting crushed in the mail, I wrapped each invitation in tissue paper and applied 3D daisy stickers (one of two flowers that Kelly said reminds her of her Mom) before gently slipping each into the envelope to mail.

For the past three years I have used my small form mannequin as part of the centerpiece for my table. The first year, it was an obvious choice for the Seamstress theme that I decorated with pattern tissue flowers and measuring tape ribbon. Last year we had a Nurse theme and Lydia created a little white nurse dress and a blue cape with red trim similar to the uniform she remembered her Mom wore in the 1960’s. A vintage style nurse’s cap hung from the top to complete a little nurse.

This year I used the Peacock to elegantly dress the form mannequin (inspired by a designer dress I saw online). Small peacock feathers were used to shape the top, paired with ribbon I had in my craft box. As I cut the ribbon it curled under (much like a folded peacock tail.) As I began to run out of ribbon I placed shorter pieces on the front section, all pinned with pearl tipped straight pins, creating my own specially designed dress. I reused the measuring tape ribbon on the back and the sewing charms because Kelly’s mom (we learned from our seamstress tea) was also an excellent seamstress.

It takes a while to figure out my table decor for every event, but if I quietly sit and meditate on it, ideas begin to generate and I always figure something out. Because of all of the themed entertaining I do, I have to be on the lookout for little things I might need in the future for an idea I may have been holding on to. During the holidays while in Homegoods in what I call the “booby trap” section (the shelves of items on each side of the line while waiting to get to the register), I spotted two Artistic Accents Turkish hand painted glass plates with peacock feathers. There were only two and I wasn’t sure what I would do with them, but knowing I had the tea to plan, I decided to purchase them and figure it out later. I decided to use the two peacock patterned plates for Kelly and her daughter who was also invited, and plain gold rimmed glass plates for the other guests with the scallop shell tied to the center combining the beach and peacock notes.

A combination of Peacock and Beach.

NASCAR

Kelly’s Mom was also an enthusiastic RV NASCAR circuit fan. Full disclosure, this was stumped me for a good while. I originally had no idea of how to inject this into an afternoon tea, but in the end I was happy with what finally came to mind. I found clip art online to print the racetrack, NASCAR logo, finish line flags and lights. I cut out each of the figures and then attached each to white card stock with a glue stick. As it began to dry, the sides of the card stock began to curl up, similar to the stadium bleachers that surround the racetrack. So I cut it into a shape similar to the track and then rubbed the stick glue all over the outer area from the racetrack. I then pressed multicolored sprinkles to represent the crowd. I ordered two cars on Etsy that are ornaments (reason for the metal loop on the top). They are very small, but I was able to enlarge the print of the track to better match the scale of the cars and I decided I would give the cars to Kelly to put on her Christmas tree in memory of her Mom after the tea. The track was set in the middle of a white rimmed dinner plate and I used dollar store moss to create greenery around the outside of the stadium to look like trees, etc. This is being placed on the other side of the table.

NASCAR racetrack.

My table is basically ready for the coming weekend…. once Jane’s favorite cheerful flowers of daisies and yellow roses are added – it will add the final touch of brightness and light that I’m sure will attract Jane’s spirit to be with us on this special day we’ve created in her honor. Now onto the menu! Come back for the next post!

BOOK CLUB, GATHERINGS

“The Undomestic Goddess” Bookclub Menu

Book selection… On a bright and cheery mid-April, Sunday afternoon a group of ten of my reading friends (members of my book club) gathered around my dining room table set with English garden decor and a slightly gourmet luncheon, inspired by our latest book selection “The Undomestic Goddess” by Sophie Kinsella. The light hearted “Hallmark like” story, started with a young female workaholic attorney who after being set up to cover up the bad actions of a Sr. Partner at the firm, flees to the English countryside and is mistaken for an applicant as a professional housekeeper. Samantha has absolutely no domestic skills, but does her best to fake it until she makes it with the help of some very kind and supportive new acquaintances she meets in the fictional Cotswolds-like town far from the hussle and bussle of London.

Nathaniel’s garden and his mother Iris’s cooking lessons lead me consider a special lunch menu with a table draped in the rustic elegance of an English garden. A photograph I found in a back issue of Victoria magazine provided the inspiration I wanted for my table setting. Having always been drawn to shades of soft blues, purples and lavenders for their casual and soothing aesthetics, I had a table runner and linen napkins in my arsenal to recreate the look. I planned to create a floral centerpiece and fill decorated clay pots filled with ferns and flowering plants that would been given as party favors to each of my members.

The Favors: Two kinds of moss purchased from the Dollar Tree in addition to bark from my crepe myrtle, were used to create layers of moss affixed with spray adhesive to terra cotta pots (also from Dollar Tree). I mixed mossy gray and green acrylic paint and then dotted a collage of color to the exterior of each pot with a sponge. Craft glue was used to then affix the bark and flowers pressed and dried in the microwave from my garden. The idea was to create pots that look like they were lying around in a greenhouse for many years. Later the use of a hot glue gun touched up the areas that may have pulled away some from the surface.

I played around with different ways of displaying and arranging the pots on the table,but remembered I wanted that pop of blue and shades of purple, violet and lavender arranged in the center of the table. So I removed several of the posts and displayed them on a small table in the corner to be distributed at the end of the meeting.

Springtime Cocktail:

A Sparkling Blueberry Lavender Bellini

The frozen blueberry puréed spheres were made with fresh blueberries in a small processor. If processed too long it becomes gelatinous as it thaws. If too loose it disburses blue chunks into the drink. I over unintentionally over processed mine (learning experience) and used it as a colorful ice cube substitute that adds a little flavor to the drink, but doesn’t water down the cocktail. It makes the glass frosty and the cocktail stays very cold.

I found this Citrus & Petals cocktail sugar at Homegoods around the holidays and set it aside for a future springtime party. But this pretty sugar idea could easily be created at home. Flower petals can be pressed between paper towels and dried in the microwave in just minutes. The dried flowers retain their brilliant color and when completely dried can be crushed to add to sugar. Lemon, orange or lime zest and dried chopped mint leaves can be set out on a plate overnight or for a few days to dry and also mixed into the sugar.

The rim of a coupe glass is gently dipped in egg white and then into the sugar mixture. I did this the day before and placed all of the glasses on a tray in the refrigerator The egg white dries and sugar and flowers were well attached for the luncheon. (I used a small paintbrush to add some egg white to the front of the glass to attach the tiny fresh flowers.)

I made a blueberry syrup by cooking down one cup of fresh blueberries with 2 tablespoons of water and sugar. Once cooked down I strained out the skins and seeds. After preparing the rims of the glasses with sugar and flowers I stored them in the refrigerator until time to serve.

To serve, I added one tablespoon of blueberry syrup and one tablespoon of lavender syrup, then placed a frozen blueberry disk in the center. Each coupe glass was then filled with chilled prosecco or cava (even sparkling water can be used for a non-alcohol version). The sparkling beverage will cause the blueberry disk to fizz slightly, similar to a bath bomb for a fun afternoon cocktail or drink. (The added syrups may require a gentle stir to mix into the prosecco or water.)

Deep blue, almost purple hydrangeas, white delphiniums, lavender stock and filler flowers that I do not know the name of, helped create a bright centerpiece.

On the Menu:

  • Chicken and Sherry Mushroom Vol au Vent
  • Mixed Spring greens, with dried blueberries, orange segments and toasted chopped pecans with a crème fraîche citrus and herb vinaigrette
  • Mini rainbow carrots with brown butter and a citrus mint marigold gremolata
  • Gentilly berry cake

The recipe was adapted for the link below. This chicken and mushroom filling is also delicious as a sauce tossed in pasta. My adjustments to the recipe included:

  • Finely chopped shallots in place of onions
  • After cooking the shallots and mushrooms down, add a half cup of white wine and simmer down to about 1/4 cup.
  • I then add the flour and cooked for a few minutes
  • Add 1/2 cup of chicken stock letting simmer about 5 minutes
  • After adding the heavy cream, I added a teaspoon of sherry vinegar
  • Chopped tarragon and thyme where the last addition

https://www.chilitochoc.com/chicken-mushroom-vol-au-vent/

It never fails… I get so busy preparing and serving (with the help of a wonderful friend) that I either forget to take pictures or don’t take the picture I really want due to rushing. I usually do a test run so I can decide what I want to add to or omit from a recipe that I’m using. The picture above was from the test. The picture below was the rushed version the day of the luncheon.

We added a couple of law books to the table – to represent Samantha’s career as a Lawyer.

A convenient scene in the book, was when Samantha’s new friends threw her a surprise birthday party. It just so happened that two of the ladies in my group had birthdays on the following two days. So for the dessert course, I purchased one of their favorites cakes, we sliced it up and put a candle on each of their pieces and sang happy birthday.

At our previous book club, I served champagne and elderflower liqueur cocktails that everyone really enjoyed. So I bought two small bottles of St. Germain Elderflower liqueur and bagged them up as little gifts for the two birthday ladies with balloons.

An English luncheon must have tea. As a nod to London, where Samatha lives and works, I served London tea lattes. Steeped Earl grey lavender tea (fairly strong), lavender syrup and a little honey, topped with foamed half and half and dusted with dried pulsed lavender.

As our meeting adjourned, the next book was announced (that will be hosted by a different member in June), everyone bid adieu with their arms filled with plants, leftovers and some with birthday gifts. Until we meet again, happy reading!

DINNER PARTY, WINE CLUB

Murder Mystery at the Underwood Winery :Wine Club Dinner Party (Pinot Noir Tasting)

Let’s get back to fun and games! A few years back I hosted a Murder Mystery Party with a free script I found on Pinterest. For that party I bought six 19 Crimes wines with interactive labels. At the end of each round (of the script) we passed around the next bottle of wine to pour and taste. We had so much fun, laughing and acting up that everyone wanted to revisit this theme again in the future.

Around the holidays while visiting the local book store, I found the above Murder Mystery Party kit that once again takes place at a winery and I decided to purchase it for a future gathering. A date was decided by taking a poll from my group and then I chose the character assignments that I felt would best suit each guest.

The party set provided invitations, but I wanted something a little more attractive and festive, so I found the above version online that I glued a copy to the top of the provided cards. Inside are the list of “suspects” with character descriptions and suggested costumes. Assigned names were written next to the characters. As I read through some of the descriptions, I discovered that the fictional winery was UNDERWOOD WINERY.

Pinot Noir that inspired our tasting- Oregon (Will be the prize for winners)

While shopping at a local grocer I came upon an actual Underwood Winery Pinot Noir from the State of Oregon. After purchasing a couple of bottles, the invitation requested each couple or individual guest bring a Pinot Noir – and were assigned a State or Country to create a variety of domestic and imported Pinot Noirs for the blind tasting throughout the script. Fortunately, we haven’t had a Pinot Noir tasting in the past and for me personally, this is one of my favorite varieties.

Pinot Noir, Oregon

At the beginning of the 2020 Quarantine, the Kutchers -Ashton & Mila – worked with Nocking Wines to create this special fundraiser Pinot Noir they labeled Quarantine. I bought 6 bottles and we shared some at my Sunset Wine Party in the summer of 2020. – Everyone that attended signed a bottle that I saved for a future party -when we could all gather again. This will be our Oregon wine for the evening!

I always request that everyone send me a copy of their label prior to the party so that I can do a little research one each to share at the tasting.

The lineup for our blind tasting from top left to right, California, Chile, Italy
Australia, France, New Zealand and Oregon.

Cocktails upon arrival….

It’s been a while since everyone has seen each other, and tonight will kick off a new year of getting back to meeting the way we did before the pandemic. In addition, everyone will be excited and silly checking out each other’s costumes. As my guests arrive I always have a starter cocktail and something small to nibble on while they visit and I collect and open the wine bottles, assign a number to each bottle and then pour their contents into the numbered glasses on the table. (I usually employ the help of a couple of my guests with this task).

For appetizer bites I made artichoke balls (from someone’s family recipe card below) and Antipasto Appetizer Squares from Brown Eyed Baker who always has new inspiring recipes.

Tip: Allow to cool a good 45 minutes to an hour before cutting (otherwise you do not get a clean cut and cheese and ingredients ooze and slide out). They are just delicious at room temp.

https://www.browneyedbaker.com/antipasto-appetizer-squares/

http://www.foodgospelaccordingtoruth.com/2011/10/artichoke-balls.html

In keeping with my dinner menu, I’m serving an Aperol Spritz, made with Aperol, prosecco, a splash of soda water ( I had about a half cup of the syrup left over from the amarena cherries -for dessert and combined a teaspoon in each glass to add a little sweetness to the bitter Aperol).

While everyone is visiting, sipping cocktails and nibbling – I’ll have a chore for them while I’m working on the bottles of wine and making last minute preparations to the main dish for dinner. I bought a screen for mugshots and a little letter board from the craft store for everyone to change out the name of their character. I tacked a ribbon to the back side for each guest to hang the name board around their neck while posing for a mugshot in front of the screen.

All of my guests dressed to kill.

Now for the table…

For a bloody good place card, I printed some clip art from online and hand wrote the last name of each couple or first name each single attendee, folded over the ends and cut little slots in each side (with small scissors or exacto knife) and slid steak knives through the holes for a Murder Mystery touch.

Bloody Placecards

A black tablecloth and linen napkins with my goldware set the scene. I used seeded and leafy eucalyptus branches along the center of the table with fresh artichokes, candles and battery operated mini lights. My table is narrow and when filled with multiple wine glasses there isn’t much room for a lot of fussy decor. I like to keep it simple and elegant so that my guests who are already very tightly placed around the table, have as much room as possible and can easily converse and see each other on all sides of the table.

Scripts and clue packets set to the side of each assigned character.
Live eucalyptus, artichokes with cork wrapped pillar candles.

One to the menu.….

I’ve planned a light Italian menu that is easy to eat since we have to concentrate on scripts and acting, while tasting wines and filling our tummies.

The menu started with fresh and roasted (multi-colored) cherry tomatoes for a twist on the caprese salad. The roasted tomatoes add a rich concentrated flavor to the entire dish and the drippings from the pan added to some balsamic crema (or concentrated balsamic vinegar) further elevated the tomato flavor. Fresh herb marinated Mozzarella balls (halved), crumbled ricotta salata for a slight salty bite, sprinkled with flaky Maldon sea salt and droplets of roasted tomato drippings and balsamic crema- finished with thinly chiffonade ribbons of fresh sweet basil. (The final version may have small Thai basil leaves for a gentle spicy kick.) The dish is served at room temperature and will be plated and ready at the table when my guests arrive.

Sometimes another ingredient may present itself on the day of the party. While making the appetizer I found an extra package of prosciutto. I cut the sheets into 2 inch pieces and then crisped them in a 400 degree oven on a sheet pan for 15 minutes (ovens may vary) creating prosciutto croutons for a crispy salty bite.

The main course….

Chicken Marsala, served over artisanally made Italian Taglia Tella pasta. I use sliced baby bella mushrooms that I carmelized in olive oil and butter for an enhanced meaty bite and the sauce is created with delicious marsala fortified wine. Thinly pounded boneless chicken breast baths in the luxurious sauce that is deliciously light and satiating.

Finally for dessert….

Amarena cherries with zabaglione, and crumbled amaretti cookies for a lightly sweet finish to the evening.

The evening ended with the winning wine (Louis Jadot-France) with 5 votes out of ten and (19 Crimes- Australia ) with 3 votes out of ten; a top performer (Papa Vito) and best costume (Otto Von Schnapps) and the murderer r-e-v-e-a-l-e-d.

Remember to follow to receive notice of our next wine party…..Salute!

BOOK CLUB, Bookclub Menus, Uncategorized

Something in the Water Bookclub Meeting

One January afternoon, my book club met to discuss this tropical murder mystery. “Something in the Water” by Catherine Steadman. Catherine is a British actress who played Mabel Lane Fox on our beloved Downton Abbey. It also was one of Reese’s Book Clubs first book selections.

Another member in my group selected this book, and at the last minute wasn’t able to host our luncheon – so I pulled together a quick table decor and menu.

I served tropical chicken salad with crackers for a light lunch.

For the table I filled blue wine glasses with white sand and candles; used shell and coral printed paper napkins I purchased to create a table runner, added palm leaves from a plant in my yard; and used a wood platter to assort shells, starfish and coral that one of the other members and I had in our home collections.

I greeted my guests with sunset cocktails made with pineapple juice,grenadine and prosecco. The Bora Bora styled umbrellas were created with regular cocktail umbrellas affixed with circles cut from brown paper bags. I glued a couple of layers around the top center and then cut strips around the circle to create the thatched fringe affect.

For dessert I made bananas foster cake, banana ice cream (from frozen ripe bananas that are pureed in the blender), and a dehydrated fresh pineapple slice to garnish (that everyone ate as a crispy treat).

BOOK CLUB, Bookclub Menus

The Christie Affair (Bookclub Menus)

“The Christie Affair” by Nina de Gramont was a quick and entertaining read. What I enjoy the most about historical fiction (this one also with a mystery appropriately crafted from the eleven day disappearance of Agatha Christie in 1926), is that the facts about the real story can be easily searched and viewed on the internet. Whenever the final conclusion of a mystery is not completely and clearly solved, it affords writers the license to create their own imagined version of what may have happened.

Reminiscent of “The Timeless Mansion”. Candlelight, dinners of tinned meats, tea, bread and wine while the rest of the country was vehemently searching for Agatha Christie.

Ms. de Gramont’s version is told from the perspective of Archie Christie’s (Agatha’s husband) lover and then second wife Nan O’Dea. [Nancy Neele (1889-1958) was the lover, and eventually, second wife of Archibald Christie. They had a son, also named Archibald, in 1930.]

I also enjoy drawing inspiration from books and create a themed luncheon. When I finished the book, the memories that stood out were those of Nan’s homeland of England and her love for Ireland where she met Finbarr. With that in mind I decided that an English-Irish fusion menu would be appropriate.

Irish Leek and Potato Soup and Irish Guinness Stout Bread.

While Finbarr and Agatha nourished on loaves of bread, apples, and tea – your guests may better appreciate this Irish inspired menu formed from Finbarr’s homeland and the place where Nan fell in love with both Ireland and Finbarr.

Above is a simply prepared potato leek soup made with a combination of both pureed and small chunks of potato, garnished with crispy bacon and chopped spring onions or scallions. If my chives were blooming I would have added a chive blossom, but it’s not quite Spring yet. (recipe in the link further below)

Also above, a Guinness Stout Bread. Very easy and quick to make. No rising or kneading required! I purchased a stout with coffee and chocolate notes – very interesting and delicious with both bitter and sweet notes. I decided this might be more flavorful than the traditional Irish Soda Bread – but maybe not. You choose. https://www.platingsandpairings.com/guinness-beer-bread/

https://thedeliciousspoon.com/wprm_print/4533

https://themondaybox.com/lemon-shrewsbury-biscuits/

NOTE: My variation to the above recipe was using the zest of an entire naval orange, adding 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla paste and two pinches of kosher salt. Otherwise follow the recipe exactly.

For the dessert course, I brought in Nan’s English homeland with Lady Gray tea (that has citrus notes) and made these English biscuits scented with orange. While it’s appropriate for the English, it also reminds me of the Timeless Manor candlelit moments of meals created from tinned meats, bottles of wine, loaves of bread slathered with marmalade and hot steaming cups of tea.

I read so many books, and as an entertainer can’t help but imagine how I would create a themed table and menu after finishing each book.  “The Christie Affair” by Nina de Gramont was selected by Reese’s Bookclub and sparked my interest.  Ironically, just this past weekend there were two Agatha Christie movies on PBS this past weekend – one with Agatha having disappeared with a very different story line.  I hope for those who are interested in hosting book club meetings will be inspired by the ideas I will share in this new series on my blog – “Bookclub Menus.” Happy reading!

BOOK CLUB, DINNER PARTY, GATHERINGS

An Afternoon with Coco Chanel

Our first book selection on 2022.

Two Thousand twenty-two marks the eighth year anniversary of my Social Writes Book Club. We’ve had a couple of members that have left the group, and few new members creating a strong membership of 11. To begin this new year of reading, it was important to select a book that was both interesting, entertaining, and inspired a theme that was festive and fun.

One late Fall afternoon, I stopped at the local bookstore in search of something new to read. Far behind the larger display of current new fiction, stuck in a small corner, one book’s cover caught my eye. The striking cover sparked my interest and I picked it up then turned it over to read the blurb on the back. Earlier in 2021 I had read “The Chanel Sisters” by Judithe Little that chronicled Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel’s life as a young orphaned girl who would eventually find a path to becoming a famous designer. The book I discovered by chance on this day described Coco Chanel’s life during the war and hinted at her being a spy for the Germans. Intrigued I decided to buy the book and headed home.

The Chanel Sisters: Historical fiction that covers Gabrielle (later Coco’s) life as a little girl brought to an orphanage, where she learned her sewing skills; her life’s journey after the orphanage to seamstress, singer, mistress, hat designer and beyond.

Later that evening I sat to look over the book more closely, the name of the author seemed familiar to me. I searched the internet and the photo I found confirmed my thoughts.

Several years ago, when my book club was just in its second year of inception, I was at a local store waiting for assistance to purchase a fruit tart for my meeting. Pamela stepped up beside me and as we looked at each other with quizzical expressions (wondering if anyone was going to assist us), I explained that I was buying a tart for my book club. I told her we were discussing “A Paris Apartment” by Michelle Gable and I was trying to do as the French do – buy dessert from a local patisserie (or basically from what we had available in Mandeville, Louisiana. )

She responded by saying, “You should read one of my books.” I was taken aback and asked her name, wrote it down and told her I would look for some of her books. She also explained that she was in the process of writing a book set in Paris that would be published in the future (something about The Queen of Paris). Surprisingly, here it was in my hands five years later. Pamela resides here in Louisiana, just a few miles down the highway from me. It was quite interesting how a store filled with so many books would accidently lead me to hers and the memory of this chance meeting and brief conversation.

As I read the book, that I thoroughly enjoyed, I realized that without having read “The Chanel Sisters” by Judithe Little, it would have been harder to understand why Coco would eventually do the things she had to do to survive the war and try to protect her financial future. As a result, I recommended that my group read both books. Overall I find the two books together, cover Coco’s story in a way that explains why she is so determined to succeed and for the most part made unscrupulous choices to to so. She had a unique gift of creativity that even she was unaware of and with all of her difficulties found a way to build an empire that still exists today. What could be more interesting than an afternoon with Coco Chanel?

Setting an elegant table with a formal handmade menu adorned with pearls and Coco’s favorite flower the white camellia because it had no scent to compete with her signature
parfum Chanel No 5.

I wanted a light, but elegant French menu. After some thought I searched for savory soufflés and decided on a brie soufflé. It’s important to test a new recipe in advance to avoid day of the event failures. I also like to add my own twist to the ingredients and confirm the actual portions to determine if I’ll need to double the recipe to ensure I’m not short on servings.

The test bake went well, but I felt the flavor needed a little boost. I remembered I had some white truffle butter in the freezer that I decided to use in place of the salted butter in the recipe. It turned out great. A small bistro salad will be served on the side with warm breaded goat cheese croutes.

The test bake went well.

The recipe that inspired my White Truffle Brie soufflé is in the link below. I added 1/2 tsp of kosher salt to the batter and I used this white truffle butter in place of the salted butter in the recipe. I also buttered the souffle dishes with the truffle butter before filling with the batter.

TIP: The batter can be made ahead and set aside. Whisk the egg whites just before ready to bake and fold into the batter base.

https://www.platingpixels.com/easy-cheese-souffle-brie/

The soufflé will fall quickly, but are still beautiful.
Bistro side salad: spring mix tossed in a red wine mustard vinaigrette, topped
with a few haricots verts and warm panko crusted honey goat cheese.
At the top of the picture a slice of truffle chicken liver pate’ and baguette crisps.

On to the table decor. I used a black table cloth, my Mom’s black and gold bone china and goldware. Champagne flute glasses will be used for the Champagne cocktails of St. Germain’s elderflower liqueur and bubbly garnished with a pale pink rose petal.

A cocktail or aperitif at the ready is important as the guests arrive and Coco would expect champagne. For my cocktail, I’m using a French Crémant with a rose petal and splash of St. Germain Elderflower liqueur.

As part of my planning and searching for items to set the table, I found and purchased some Chanel ribbon. Originally I thought I would use it to tie the napkins, but due to the small amount I had (2 yards) and the number of guests I would have 11 – it pained me to think of cutting the ribbon into such small pieces. That’s when I came up with the idea of forming the linen napkin into a “Little Black Dress”.

Cinched high at the top with black and white ribbon and then tied tightly in the back, the ends formed into loops to create a bow, with a flat backed pearl in the center –
creating a “Little Black Dress”.
The backside with a little bow. Turn the napkin over and slide hand inside of the bottom to fluff out the skirt into a little black dress.

With my two yards of Chanel ribbon still in tack, I searched for ways to use it. Then I remembered my small form mannequin that I use for my annual mothers’ tea. After all – Coco was a seamstress who became a designer. Of course there would be form mannequins! I draped the ribbon from bottom to top and tied the ends into a bow. I made a small white flower with gift bag tissue paper (like her favorite camellia) and pinned it to the center. I also repurposed a necklace with a small spool of thread, scissors and soft pink rose that fit in perfectly. Finally it had to be draped with pearls to be truly Coco.

An afternoon discussion about Coco wouldn’t be complete without Coco Chanel quotes. I found and wrote out several, on these gold embossed Eiffel tower cards with pink borders (tucked away in my stationary drawer for several years) and sealed each into their envelopes with ribbon and a wax stamp. Each of my guests will pick an envelope to open and read a quote to the rest of the group.

Coco Chanel’s infamous quotes.

A simple, inexpensive square glass vase was given a Chanel No. 5 label on all four sides for the entire table to see from all angles and filled with lush pale pink roses for a pop of color.

French architectural paper luminaries I found several years ago at Tuesday Morning were each $1.49. I had tucked them away with my stationary knowing one day they would be of good use for one of my parties. On this day they will make their debut.

I use place cards to help mix up the group at the table, otherwise the same people always sit together. Sitting next to someone new encourages everyone to become familiar with one another. I dug through my stash of supplies (little finds that attract my attention and I somehow feel I will use in the future) and found these little tote bags with a white flower that I’ll pretend is a white camellia for Coco’s sake, and two pages of gold letters.

First I had to open the package of letters and spell out everyone’s name to ensure I had enough letters. One name (Stephanie) was shortened to Steph in order to complete the names of my other guests. I then centered the little tote bag on to the same soft pink cardstock I used for the menu and underlined the name with the pearls also used on the menus. Calligraphy or hand written names would be appropriate to the era, but I had these letters and decided to add a little golden glam to the table.

Champagne with elderflower liqueur and a rose petal.
I only drink champagne on two occasions,
when I’m in love and when I’m not.” -Coco Chanel

Time for dessert….. Strawberries are plentiful during the month of February in the south. Not so far from where I live is a town considered the Strawberry Capital (Ponchatoula, Louisiana). Strawberries are often associated with champagne, so I decided to make a champagne sabayon to pour over fresh strawberries and then lightly brûlée the sabayon just before serving. The sabayon can be made early in the day or the day before and placed in the refrigerator until ready to serve. The recipe I referenced is below.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/recipes/champagne-sabayon/15061/

Fresh strawberries with champagne sabayon.

One can’t have a French luncheon and not serve chocolats français. As luck would have it, stores like Homegoods have a variety of chocolates from various parts of the world in stock for Valentine’s Day. When I saw this box – I grabbed it!

A plan can be made, but never set in stone. The Saturday prior to our luncheon I drove to Trader Joe’s about 45 minutes from where I live expecting to find beautiful fresh roses and an edible flower I could use for the salads. I was there before the doors opened only to find mixed floral bouquets as the only available option. There were other items I hoped to purchase while I was there that were also unavailable. The cashier explained that the winter storms that blew through Texas the two days before had delayed their trucks. I spent a few hours going to every grocery store and even some florists to find they also had not received shipments. So I had to pivot – the word we’ve heard used so much over the past couple of years.

Afraid I wouldn’t find the pale pink roses I wanted, I bought two bouquets of pale pink tulips. Many years ago I learned a trick for how to make tulips last longer. On the left the tulips lay on their side after arranging. Pretty, but if left this way they would continue to extend out and not look so attractive.

As soon as possible, I had been taught to trim the ends and place the bouquet into a jar of cold water and refrigerate overnight. The next day, using a straight pin, prick a horizontal hole through the stem just below the flowerbud. For some reason this encourages the water to come up to heal the hole. The following morning notice what happened in the picture on the right. The tulips are all standing up straight.

My diligence paid off and I finally found one slightly shabby bouquet of pale pink roses for the table, but no one knew the difference. They were too busy savoring their champagne cocktails, white truffle brie soufflés, bistro salads with truffle chicken liver pate’ and finally strawberries with champagne sabayon and chocolats français with a rich cup of coffee discussing the life and legacy of Gabrielle Coco Chanel.

What a lovely ladies lunch we had! It was so fun to gather everyone together again. So looking forward to the next 📖!

Don’t forget to wear your pearls now and then. As Coco said: “Dress shabbily and they remember the dress. Dress impeccably and they remember the woman.”
DINNER PARTY, GATHERINGS, HOLIDAY, New Year's Eve, WINE CLUB

Wine Club: Toasting to the New Year with an Asian Theme

The past two years have been filled with social distancing, masking, pivoting, and mountains of challenges and uncertainties. Depending on your field of work, like mine, it also may have been and continues to be stressful. Like most of you, I was ready for an escape from it all, and wanted to host a holiday gathering with my wine group of friends before the year ended. When fielding date options, the majority of my group were only available for New Year’s Eve.

With the date decided, I found myself now trying to figure out how to host a party on a Friday, after a full eight hours of work. For a couple of days my mind spun with ways to put everything together the weekend prior, and a simple way to have food and spirits, when the idea of a large tray of sushi came to mind. I thought of all of the special heavy meals enjoyed over the holiday season, and thought that an Asian themed party might be a nice change in cuisine to end and begin the years, while allowing me to order and pick up fresh prepared sushi with no worries of cooking, keeping warm and so on.

Chinese Lanterns to greet my guests.
A Sake and Plum wine tasting.

I shared my idea with the group and asked everyone to bring an Asian dish and a wine or possibly Asian beer that they would like to drink at the party. I would supply a couple of bottles of sake to taste and a plum wine. The selection of options were minimal, and I have no knowledge of sake, but the bottles I did find were nearly sold out, so I took that as a sign they were at least considered acceptable. Below are the notes I found on each.

Tyku Junmai Ginjo (black bottle) drops the sweet grain and banana of the Junmai for classic Ginjo flavors of melon and pear. However, overall aromatic and flavor intensity takes a hit. Fortunately there’s enough sweet melon flavor on the finish to save it from tasting bland. Like the Junmai, what’s here is good but the sake tastes too simple and too gentle.

Tozai Junmai Nigori Snow Maiden Sake and fresh with a lovely ricey and fruity combination. Flavors of honeydew melon, raw pumpkin, and radish. Creamy texture and full body. Try with spicy foods, crab, pork, or spicy tuna poke.

Gekkeikan Black & Gold California – This versatile sake has a smooth, mellow flavor and can be enjoyed warmed, room temperature or chilled. Serve from this traditional “”tokkuri”” container that was used when purchasing sake in the old days. Full-bodied with hints of honeydew, papaya, anise and roasted nuts. Well balanced, finishes long and smooth. A great sipping sake.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-S3C3jWlHvk

One evening I searched through Pinterest for some inspiration, and found this Youtube video of how to fold a napkin to look like a kimono. I remembered I had these floral paper napkins and thought the print was perfect for my Asian theme. The embossed textured borders folded nicely and provided texture and interest to the finished fold. I used the kimonos as placeholders for the chopsticks, with my purple linen napkins just beneath.

I had just enough time to order two sets of painted black wooden chopsticks that pulled together a place setting of purple, greens, blacks and golds (inspired by the sake bottles). While looking through the flower selection at my local Fresh Market, I found one lone package each of purple and a variegated green/purple chrysanthemum that were the perfect colors and looked very much like the flower on my kimono napkin. It never fails that I’ll find exactly what I want two weeks before the party and then can’t find a single replacement the week of the party. Fingers crossed I’ll find the same lovely version again, or I’ll have to figure out an alternative.

One of the comforting traditions of Japanese restaurants are the small fragrant steamy hot towels (called an oshibori) they hand out along with the menus. My best friend and I often had lunch at one such place and each time we were so tempted to wipe our faces in addition to our hands, which would have resulted in destroying our makeup. Always a lovely surprise to me when the tray of steamy towels arrived and I’ve prepared to do the same for my guests.

Japanese restaurants often provide a small hot towel called an oshibori. This is to wipe your hands but not your face. You may see some Japanese wiping their faces with their oshibori, but sometimes this is considered bad form. If you must use your oshibori on your face, wipe your face first, then your hands.

While searching for chopsticks I also found these vellum gold trimmed chinese floating lanterns. I don’t have a lake or a swimming pool to float lanterns in, but I thought they would be lovely, lite and simply placed all across the front lawn. (Below is just a quick test I tried before Christmas to see how they would look.) The package of 20 will create a warm, celebratory scene for greeting my guests. I also placed a few on the table.

https://www.amazon.com/dp/B011OURNTU?psc=1&ref=ppx_yo2_dt_b_product_details

Asian meals traditionally end with fortune cookies. A friend of mine made large versions years ago for Christmas gifts dipped in chocolate and sprinkles, so I thought they shouldn’t be that hard to make. I learned they were a bigger challenge than expected, but somehow I got through and used red ribbon for a pop of color with a New Year’s wish for each of my friends. The first recipe I tried was an epic fail, so I went to my trustworthy mentor Martha Stewart. The technique takes a little time to master and leaves the baker with slightly burning finger tips, but eventually I got the hang of it and filled a bowl with the number I needed.

My modest effort at fortune cookies are individually wrapped with red ribbons and stacked in a large bowl to serve to my guests.

The next addition were paper glittered 2022 eye frames that I wrapped around the bottom of the lanterns on two sides and placed New Year’s crackers at each place setting.

Bowls and spoons set up for Thai Coconut Shrimp Soup
Thai Coconut Shrimp Soup with cilantro and thai basil blossoms.

While there will be wine and sake, we will still have bubbly for midnight.

To crank up the party atmosphere I strung lights on the wall with a Happy New Year banner that can also be used as a backdrop for taking pictures. I’d like to order black, gold and white helium filled balloons to rest along the ceiling in the dining room, but that may be a challenge to pick up prior to the party (remember I’m working that day), but if I can make it happen – I will.

All I have left to do is order my platter of sushi for pick up on Friday afternoon. My guests are bringing items some of which are potstickers, chicken satay, spring rolls, edamame salad and a couple of other items that haven’t been shared with me yet.

Photo by Anton Mislawsky on Pexels.com

A friend from our group has offered to come help me with some ideas for an Asian charcuterie board. I found only one example on Pinterest that included sugar snap peas (that would be good in a little sesame oil with black sesame seeds), thinly sliced pickled cucumbers, edamame, pineapple, mandarin segments, dumplings with dipping bowls of peanut sauce and soy sauce, and some Thai spiced potato chips. We’re looking to see what we can find to make our own version.

Photo by Rathnahar Sriom on Pexels.com

There is no need to buy fireworks because folks in my neighborhood put on an incredible fireworks display every year that we can simply step outside among the chinese lanterns and enjoy. I’m so looking forward to bringing in the new year with the company of friends, good conversation, laughter and of course good food.

Happy New Year everyone! We are all ready to feel the joy again in our lives and share time together to form new memories. Blessings and joy to you and yours!

Photos from the actual party.

Asian nibble boards with sake tasting bottles.
Sesame sticks, red chili crackers, pickled carrots and
asian pickled cucumbers, sesame sugar snap peas.
The food was amazing and plentiful, in the far back, forward, chicken satay, potstickers, spring rolls, a variety of sushi, krab salad, asian stuffed eggs, edamame salad, teriyaki salmon bites, pork tenderloin.

My neighborhood fireworks – photo taken with a drone.

CHRISTMAS, HOLIDAY, SMALL TALK

The Perfect Christmas Card

Year after year I search through stacks of boxes of Christmas cards in search of one that expresses the true meaning of Christmas. For several years I picked cards with beautiful angels on the front; others with manger scenes, Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus and sometimes the three kings in the background, and every now and then I grab one just because it’s a beautiful picturesque scene that makes me remember the joyful festive streets of New York from a couple of occasions when I was fortunate enough to be there when all of their beautifully decorated buildings and windows, glowed from every direction.

I’ve received many versions of Christmas cards over the years, some more thoughtfully chosen than others, and some so special that I’ve kept them tucked away with my box of Christmas stationary and read them once each year.

One year (I don’t even recall how long ago, but it could be as long as two decades) a long time friend who was residing in Germany at the time sent what I have claimed as my favorite Christmas card of all time.

Simple, elegant, and straight to the point, I couldn’t help but praise the wonderful person who designed this beautiful card. As I slowly unfolded each of it’s accordion folded pages, I wondered how even after all of these years I’ve never seen another card with this same beautiful message.

As I opened the pages to read my special card this year, the thought came to me to share this beautiful card with all of you. As I centered on each page to take a picture, I noticed that when I took the picture of the final page (above) a warm light glowed through along the trunk of the tree. I knew my decision to share it was validated.

I send out far more cards than I ever receive these days. I miss seeing the beautifully unique script handwritten signature of each family member and friend who once sent them to me. Some were once filled with beautiful handwritten letters sharing a few notes about their year (as were mine). As this once very special tradition gets lost in the chaos of texting and posting, rather than personally writing and mailing – I suppose life won’t slow down enough for these old traditions to find their way back again. Fortunately, I’ve held on to the best so I can enjoy reading them again again for years to come.

Special thank you to my lovely friend Vivian who is always filled with faith and devotion to our Lord Jesus. God Bless YOU! An a very Merry Christmas to all of you!

FALL, FRIENDSGIVING, GATHERINGS, WINE CLUB

How Do You Like Them Apples ? Friendsgiving Brunch 2021 (Back Together Again)

It’s time to start gathering again! This time of year comes and goes far too quickly. I love the Fall season so much and by mid-month some are already pushing for Christmas, but I want to give the season it’s fully deserved time. While the holiday is generally meant to celebrate the history modeled on a 1621 harvest feast shared by the English colonists (Pilgrims) of Plymouth and the Wampanoag people, for most of us I believe it’s a time to show gratitude and appreciation for all that we have, friends, home, health, faith and more.

I am grateful for so much in my personal and professional life, and so happy to once again gather with friends who support all of my creative ambitions, with a Friendsgiving brunch.

Setting the Table

Little boutonniere like bouquets made with a magnolia leaf, fresh sage, chamomile and spray roses were created for each place setting and guests took them home at the end of the brunch.

A combination of succulents, spray and country roses and eucalyptus (and later a couple of apples- I wanted crab apples but couldn’t find any this year) were arranged around brass candlesticks to create a fragrant and feminine centerpiece. Everything was just laid on the table with no water source the morning of the brunch.

Inspired by Erin French of The Lost Kitchen, I decided to use an apple theme for my menu and included one of her recipes.

Cocktails and Nibbles

Simple apple cider bellini. Reduce 3 cups of apple cider to 1 1/2 cups. Let cool and refrigerate overnight. When ready to serve fill each glass 1/4th to 1/2 with reduced cider and top off with prosecco, champagne, crement or other sparkling white wine.

An apple tasting tray of each apple used in the dishes being served.

For most of my younger years I had only eaten a red delicious apple, the only kind my Mom ever purchased. As I studied foods and flavors years later I saw an article in a magazine that featured a description of multiple apple varieties. There are no apple tree farms in Southern Louisiana, so we are limited to the varieties that appear in various grocery stores.

One year I purchased one of each variety and compared their flavors, finding the most amazing flavors and never buying a red delicious apple again. With that memory, I decided it might be fun to create a tray with each of the apples used in the dishes in the menu, giving my guests a similar experience hoping to inspire each to try new varieties on their own afterwards.

From left to right, Lucky Seven Grain Bread(Artisan bread from Rouses)
toasted with olive oil and sprinkled with a pint of kosher salt, Baked Lemon Ricotta,
a small dish of Apple Butter (Dickinson’s), Golden Berries, Marcona Truffle Almonds,
Soft ripened cheese from Germain,France, Italian truffle cheese, and Chicken Liver Pate’.

For the “nibble boards” a term borrowed from Erin French (my most recent found source of inspiration), almost everything was purchased from Trader Joe’s, hence my Trader Joe Nibble boards.

The cup is filled with Fried cheese stuffed kalamata olives
(in Trader Joe’s frozen food section – and very very good!)

Salad Course

For the salad I used Erin French’s roasted buttercrisp squash with apple slaw. My local Fresh Market has the largest variety of squash and I’ve been experimenting with several over the past couple of months. One buttercrisp squash about the size of a cantaloupe three to four pounds was sliced into ten wedges, enough to serve all of my guests. The link below provides Erin’s recipe. My only additions were a little apple cider vinegar and pomegranate seeds for color and crunch. My slaw was made with four apple varieties, pink lady, granny smith, golden and honey crisp. My recommendation would be to pick a variety of sweet, tart and crisp versions and also consider the colors of green, yellow and red. The skin remains on the matchstick pieces and adds color. Erin and I ALWAYS decorate with edible flowers. The small yellow flowers (top left)are tarragon blossoms. I planted a couple of tarragon plants a couple of months ago and they have been blooming as if it were Spring!

https://www.today.com/recipes/roasted-buttercup-squash-apple-slaw-recipe-t141064

The squash is easy to bake as instructed and served at room temperature and the slaw tossed in it’s dressing with the arugula holds up well. I plated these about 45 minutes before serving and everything held it’s texture. (My guests could not stop talking about how delicious this was. Thank you Erin!)

Entrée

The entrée and dessert courses were both contributions from two of my guests. My work hours have been long and stressful and in order to pull this event off I needed to accept offered help and take a few shortcuts.

Apple and cranberry stuffed pork loin with Trader Joe green bean casserole bites.

My friend Lanie (who also loves to cook and has restaurant experience) made this Jazz and Fuji apple – cranberry stuffed pork loin. I think I heard there was a little fig jam, hazelnuts and some other special secret ingredients in the stuffing. It was absolutely delicious and a perfect addition to the menu and there wasn’t a single piece left!

Dessert & Mulled Cider Wine

Lanie also made an apple cider white mulled wine, with a spicy ginger liqueur that we served with dessert.

A week prior to the brunch I attempted to make apple cider donuts for the first time. I don’t have a fryer and I NEVER fry. The dough was too wet and I had trouble controlling the temperature of the oil – the house spelled for days after. It was an epic fail! Donut maker, I am not and I rarely fail when I try to follow a recipe.

I decided a better alternative was to support a local donut business that makes a multitude of small flavored donuts. I employed one of my guests to order a couple dozen apple cider donuts and asked that they not place them in the finishing cinnamon sugar. I wanted to rewarm the lot before serving and then toss in the cinnamon sugar myself.

I already had a large bowl of cinnamon sugar left over from my failed attempt at donut making. I added two teaspoons of Chinese Five Spice (my favorite substitute for cinnamon) and mixed the sugar thoroughly. We were advised to rewarm the donuts in an oven or air fryer – never in the microwave, so I placed them on a tray (to serve 2 per guest) and hoped to make them more “dessert like” my slicing all of the donuts horizontally in half and spreading one side with apple butter before sandwiching the two halfs back together. I then placed the tray of donuts in a preheated in oven at 350 degrees for ten minutes. When warmed through I rolled the donut gently in the sugar mixture and placed on a saucer with small mini dessert forks.

The party may be over, but the memories will remain and the joy I saw in my friends as they hugged and caught up with one another, along with their praises for everything we served as always made all of effort worth it. I am forever grateful for their enthusiasm and encouragement and cannot express how happy I am to be able spoil and entertain again.

To all of my wonderful followers – Happy Thanksgiving! I’m so thankful for your support as well!

LAGNIAPPE, SMALL TALK

A Handmade♟Family Heirloom

It’s been a while since I’ve shared one of my family stories. A recent visit with my cousin and the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday provided perfect timing for sharing this special memory of my Mom.

This family heirloom…circa 1969 was made with my mother’s hands. In the late 60’s and early 70’s we lived in Fairfield,CA where Dad was stationed (USAF) at Travis Air Force base. Mom became a fan of what was called “The Hobby Shop”, a place on the base for family members to experiment with crafts. Mom took to the craft of ceramics with passion. It seems she was always at the table cleaning or painting ceramic pieces during the three years we resided there.

Unlike ceramics shops found today filled will pre-made and fired pieces that you pick out and only paint, in Mom’s time she chose the molds of items she wanted to make and then actually poured the clay into the molds. Once set, she would bring the pieces home and we would watch her use a little sculpting tool to gently scrape away the seam lines (like those found on chocolate bunnies for Easter) formed by the mold around the entire perimeter of each object. Once scraped away she used a small natural sponge lightly dipped in water and gently wiped the area until it was smooth. She would then bring the pieces back to the shop, where they were placed into a kiln for their first fire, the term for a baking process (just like pottery). A day or so later, she would pick up “the fired” pieces and then settle into meticulously painting and adding all of the little details.

Mom made everything from those retro lighted ceramic Christmas trees that are coming back, to large nativity sets and ♟ chess sets, some small like this one and some with pieces as large as 8 inches tall. Of all the items we remember her making, we only each (my brother and I) have one large nativity set and a couple of Santa mugs that are now found mass produced, but ours is made with Mom’s hands and when my grandchildren spend Christmas at my house, we use the mug for Santa’s milk to place next to his plate of cookies.

A couple of years ago, when my cousin was packing up items in her parents’ home to prepare it for sale, she found two of the ceramic chess sets my mother had made and given her parents as gifts. We have no idea why, she gave multiple versions of these small and large chess ♟ sets to my Dad’s sister (now 92) and her husband. My brother and I clearly remember her making them (see the black and white photo), but we didn’t have any of the chess sets. My cousin packed placed the items she found in boxes and asked me if I wanted them.

Prior to the pandemic of 2020 and 2021, she had give me one smaller and one larger version that my brother wanted. Some pieces were broken, but he set them aside saying he would try to repair the broken pieces.

Recently after two years, I drove the nearly hour distance to visit my 92 year old aunt and my cousin. She had been saying she had some things for me, and I thought we had gotten everything she had found, but she handed me yet another set. (As I said before, why did Mom make so many of these and send them all to this one relative?)

Ironically my oldest two grandchildren, now 13 and 10 were both first place chess champions for their grades in elementary school. My youngest grandson is not yet old enough to play, but I’m sure he will follow in his siblings footsteps.

The Swinger instamatic polaroid camera photo is slowly fading, but here are my brother and I,
watching Mom as she worked on the larger version of the ceramic chess sets she crafted.
In the background, is a large ceramic cat she also made.

Unfortunately, as I lined up all of the pieces to examine them, one white piece is missing to this set. It’s a little chipped and weathered (like most of us after 50 years), but after checking with my brother to find out if “maybe” the missing piece is with the set I passed on to him, I plan to box this set up to give to my grandchildren from their Great Granny.

What I know for sure… sometimes we do things that may not make sense at the time ( like giving 3 chess sets to my Aunt and Uncle), but they’re the ones who saved them all these years later so they would reappear for her great grandchildren. Coincidence? I think not.

An update to the story – I delivered the set and my grandson informed me that “Granny” (what they called my Mom) actually made extra pieces – so we were not short. He informed me that the players can actually win another queen and that “Granny” made two extra queens. He gave me my first chess lesson as my six year old grandson (who is extremely smart and remembers everything) stood by to listen in. Within minutes he was telling my how to move pieces. While he quickly understood the direction that each piece could be moved, he’ll need to learn how to actually “play” the game. I can just imagine that my Mom is looking down on all of us, smiling.

WINE CLUB

A Hauntingly Elegant Wine Tasting Party….

In the South, the humid hot summer heat begins to dissipate slowly as Fall quietly eases in with its cool refreshing breezes and changing foliage, but not until well into late October or November. Still we hang our autumn leaved garlands and wreaths on our doors and thresholds, line the front walkways with purple, yellow and amber chrysanthemums and perfectly shaped pumpkins hoping to encourage the comforting temperatures of Fall to fully arrive. Autumn is my favorite time of year. A time when my passion for baking and cooking hearty soups and stews peaks, along with taking long walks as nature’s colors transform into the most beautiful shades of red, orange, and burgundy.

Several years ago I went on a Fall Pilgrimage in New England -from Boston, to Salem, Portland, Kennebunkport, through the White Mountains of New Hampshire and Vermont, The Berkshires, Stockbridge and finally Cape Code to witness the most beautiful display of nature I’ve ever seen along with historical landmarks of our wonderful country. I enjoyed it so much, that I did it again a few years later. I still remember the quaint little town of Salem dressed for the coming of Halloween, with potted mums displayed everywhere you looked and our visit to the Salem Witch Museum.

Those memories of my Fall in New England and the haunting vibrations of witches and Halloween, inspired my Hauntingly Elegant Wine Club evening. I wanted it to be unique but not gimmicky, catchy with a touch of elegance.

THE INVITE:

IMAGES BORROWED FROM A BEAUTIFULLY CATERED HAUNTING EVENT –
POSTED ON MARTHA STEWART’S WEBSITE THAT INSPIRED MY VERSION OF A HAUNTINGLY ELEGANT PARTY.
https://www.marthastewart.com/1521546/host-halloween-dinner-party-hauntingly-beautiful

My invitation was emailed to my guests, but I created a printed version for the sake of creating a photo. Guests were asked to bring a red wine, with a haunting, spooky or spell bound label and a small bite; and black attire.

THE APERITIF:

The Aperitif: My signature cocktail “Bitter Broken Heart”

Thawed frozen black cherries soaked in kirsch, pureed and strained (discard cherry pulp); add the juice of half a lemon to cherry liquid. Fill 1/4th of each coupe glass with cherry juice; 3 dashes chocolate bitters and top off with Prosecco. Garnish with dried cherries soaked in kirsch over night and an Amarena cherry.

My guests sipped on their cocktail while another guest and I opened the bottles of wine, placed each in a numbered bag and poured the wines into the numbered glasses in preparation for the tasting.

About a month prior to this party, I had purchased red roses to place on the table for my book club meeting. For some reason, they were so pretty and remained only partially open. I watched as they slowly dried holding their bud form. I also had a vase of hydrangeas from a friend’s wedding that had dried in their contains. With a plastic cauldron, plastic skulls, green and Spanish moss (all from the dollar store), dry dead branches from the yard sprayed with gold paint and black grosgrain ribbon tied in knots on it’s smaller branches to look like bats, I created a spooky elegant floral arrangement for my sofa table. Black lanterns placed on each side contained battery candles and pieces of dried flowers, moss and black glittered branches.

From there I began to dry roses and other flowers from my garden to sprinkle along the table, add to my candelabra, and create other small arrangements around the house. I made spiders from champagne corks and black pipe cleaners, and placed Spanish moss and black crows in the chandeliers.

The local craft store had all of the Halloween decorations on sale and I purchased spider web netted tablecloths and scarves that draped over my lamp shades. More plastic dollar store skulls, black glittered twigs, moss and dried flowers were sprinkled along the center of each table. On this evening I had 14 members requiring two tables for seating. I used my black and gold rimmed china, brass candle holders with black tapered candles and gold-ware cutlery to add to the mystic and elegance.

THE CHEESE COURSE

Baked brie with black cherry, raspberry and black grapes simmered in red wine.
Served in mini cast iron pans.

THE SMALL BITES:

Warm Garden of Eden Autumnal Salad with Serpent Garlic Breadsticks

  • 1 cup of black rice
  • 1 cup of peeled and diced sweet potato or butternut squash
  • 1 quart of vegetable stock
  • 1/2 to 3/4 cup cubed green apple
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon chili flavored oil (optional)
  • 1/4 to 1/2 cup pomegranate seeds
  • 1/4 to 1/2 cup toasted pecans & or pepitas (pumpkin seeds)
  • 2 to 3 cups of baby spinach or arugula
  • salt and pepper
  • Apple cider vinaigrette
  1. Cook rice in vegetable stock using amount of liquid according to the package instructions and allow to complete to room temperature when complete.
  2. Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees. On a small sheet pan – place the pecans and/or pepitas and toast in the oven for 10 minutes. This brings out the natural oils in the nuts to enhance their flavor and crunch. (A great alternative is candied or spice coated pecans – but they take more time involving egg whites, sugar and spices – you can find a recipe on Pinterest). Set toasted nuts aside in a small bowl.
  3. Pre-heat oven to 400 degrees. Using 2 separate sheet pans – spray each tray well with cooking spray (I used olive oil spray) and place pans in the oven to pre-heat the tray.
  4. Place the diced squash (or sweet potato) in an appropriate sized bowl. Add 1 1/2 tablespoons of olive oil (or) 1 tablespoon of olive oil and 1 teaspoon of chili oil to add a little heat, salt and pepper and toss to evenly coat. Carefully spread the vegetables in a single layer on one of the heated sheet trays and return to the oven. Roast for 30 minutes, turning the vegetables over half way through creating a little browning on the sides that are facing down on the tray.
  5. Use the same bowl to place the diced apples and toss in remaining 1/2 tablespoon of olive oil, salt and pepper. Carefully spread on the second heated sheet tray in a single layer and roast in the oven 15 minutes (warmed through but with a little crunch still present) – when these come out the squash needs turning over.
  6. Meanwhile, in the bottom of a large salad bowl mix together the ingredients for the vinaigrette (recipe in the next box).
  7. Add the cooked black rice first, the roasted apples and vegetables next, then the arugula or spinach (or combination), pomegranate seeds, pecans and/or pepitas without tossing at this point. Layer with heaviest items in the bottom and lighter on top with vinaigrette at the very bottom of the bowl. When ready to serve gently toss all ingredients together to lightly coat with the vinaigrette. Note: To keep vegetables warm, you can leave them on the sheet tray in the oven at 200 degrees until ready to serve for about 20 minutes – more than that they may dry out too much.

Apple Cider Vinaigrette: In a mason jar with lid ( or simply add ingredients to the bottom of the salad bowl) place 1/3 c. Extra Virgin Olive or Avocado Oil; 1/4 cup Apple Cider; 1 tsp. Dijon mustard; 1 minced shallot (or garlic optional); 1 tbsp. honey or agave; 1/2 tsp. kosher salt; 1/4 to 1/2 tsp. ground black pepper. Either whisk in the bowl or shake vigorously in the jar to combine. Optional: Gently warm vinaigrette in a small saucepan and return to serving salad bowl. (This is for a lightly dressed salad. If you prefer more dressing -double the recipe and guests can always add more ).

Serpent Garlic Breadsticks: See my notes below.

https://www.pinterest.com/pin/491525746823276732/

When I saw these serpent breadsticks on Pinterest, I decided to make a warm Garden of Eden vegetable salad and breadsticks that used autumnal flavors. The salad combined black forbidden rice, roasted sweet potatoes (or butternut squash), pomegranate seeds, baby spinach and toasted pecans with a warm apple cider vinaigrette. My serpent breadsticks were flavored with garlic butter and black Hawaiian salt. For best results: The tongues were made with dried red chili peppers with a little “v” cut into the end with scissors. I had to make a little slot at the end of the head of each breadstick before baking , to get the pepper to hold in place. I quickly inserted the pepper tongue in place immediately after the breadstick came out of the oven while still soft. As they cooled the pepper held in place. I used black peppercorns for the eyes. [Baking the breadstick with the red pepper inserted causes it to burn, so it has to be added after the baking.] Below are images of the beautiful small bites brought by my guests.

THE DESSERT COURSE:

Fall immediately makes me think of campfires and S’mores. I found this great cake recipe adapted from Molly Yeh’s blog. I used leftover cake and filling to make a couple of cake balls I called truffles, and a mango syrup that I dotted along the sides of the plate to help cut the richness of the ganache. A lighter version would be to use a mousse in lieu of ganache and semi-sweet or milk chocolate instead of the bittersweet I used – but a true S’more calls for a rich chocolate. Several of my guests were celebrating birthdays over the previous and next couple of weeks, so we added candles and sang ‘Happy Birthday’. http://mynameisyeh.com/mynameisyeh/2017/4/smores-mini-cakes

THE WINE

The Winner!
  • La Catrina [Cabernet Sauvignon] 3 votes
  • The Walking DEAD [Bloody Red Blend] 2 votes
  • The Walking DEAD [Cabernet Sauvignon 2016] 2 votes
  • HOB NOB WICKED LIMITED EDITION [RED BLEND] 2 votes
  • Ministry of The Vinterior [Cabernet Sauvignon 2015] 1 vote
  • Vampire [Vampire Red -Winemaker’s Blend 2014]
  • Saved [Red Wine 2014]
One of my guest brought me with little ghostly air plant as a hostess gift.

This is a great time to pull out your slightly tarnished silver, save the colorful flower petals from your garden and let them dry, and search through dollar stores for moss, black pebbles and other items to add to your decor. While I live near the swamps and large trees filled with Spanish moss – I purchased moss to avoid bringing in unwanted insects and who knows what else into the house.

The winner’s trophy –The winner received this webbed bagged bottle
of Limited Edition Bartenura Semi-Sec.

Long before the idea of a Hauntingly Elegant Party came to mind, I found this bottle of Bartenura Semi-Sec (of all places at Walmart). The webbed bag was so elegant and interesting that I decided to buy a bottle and hold on to it for some occasion. One day while one of my friends was visiting, I was sharing some of my ideas for the party and suddenly remembered the bottle tucked away in my pantry. She pointed out that the bag looked like a spider web. Lightbulb moment – I had my trophy for the winner.

As the Fall months approach, if you’re looking for a fun way to celebrate the ghostly spirits of Halloween with a slightly Gothic twist , I hope you will be inspired to host your own hauntingly elegant evening. If you try any of my ideas or create your own – check out the posts on my Pinterest page and share yours.