Whether the table is set for my wine club, book club, mothers tea, Friendsgiving or any of the many other entertaining dates I’ve planned, the one thing you can’t see in the party pictures is the music!
I usually begin experimenting a week or two prior to the scheduled event in search of the best music selection I can find, in search of background melodies that don’t overpower the conversation, but like a subtle soundtrack in a movie, creates the appropriate mood and ambiance for the gathering. Until recently I chose the Pandora App where the variety of options or countless for nearly every theme you can dream up. Simply search with the theme, such as Italian love songs, Mardi Gras music, French Cafe’ or the individual name of a favorite artist. As technology advances, so do the options. Amazon’s Alexa and Echo players or Google Play can provide musical options from Pandora, Spotify or their own musical programs with a simple verbal request.
In the recent year as I visited small shops in our area, the sound of classic French music, smooth Jazz or piano instrumentals caught my attention, and when I would ask what was playing I was informed over and over again that it was YouTube music. Videos created into various music themes that can be played up to 10 hours has become another favorite. I originally streamed the music from my TV, but Google or Alexa will play the music if requested also.
The point of entertaining (dinner party, wine party etc.) is to have shared discussions and conversations. So I choose music that isn’t distracting, but provides a soothing background for the evening at a soft audible level. Below are some suggestions/examples of options I’ve made part of my party planning.
For an Italian themed night: (Capri) Andrea Bocelli Radio, Italian Summer Radio, Italian Cooking Music Radio, or Italian Traditional Radio. Romantic Venice, Italian Restaurant Music
Holiday/Christmas Cocktail Party– Jazz Holiday Radio, Diana Krall (Holiday) Radio, Michael Buble (Holiday Radio), Nat King Cole (Holiday) Radio, Vince Guaraldi Trio (Holiday) Radio, Christmas Radio.
Derby Theme : Kentucky Derby Radio, Frank Sinatra Radio
Symphony of Whites (Wine): Classical Dinner Party Radio, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Radio, Antonio Vivaldi Radio, and many more.
French Bistro Theme– French Cafe’ Radio, Edith Piaf Radio, French Cooking Radio; Spotify : French Cafe’ Lounge Music, French Romantic Music, French Bistro Music, French Mornings-Emily in Paris Vibes, French Jazz Cafe’
Rio De Janeiro Carnival– Brazilian Radio, Tango Radio, Spanish Guitar
Romantic Valentine Theme- Classical Piano Love Songs, Country Love Songs Radio, Diana Krall Radio, Michael Buble Radio, Chris Botti Radio, Romantic instruments
Whatever your party, theme or no theme, while preparing the list of things to do, include a selection of soothing musical entertainment that is sure to enhance the enjoyment of your event.
It’s time to thank the kind hearts that have cared for not only my Dad, but the loved ones of many others at a local Sr. Living Residence. Those tumultuous days, weeks and months of 2020 pushed right into 2021 with a renewed vengeance. Suddenly the director, nurses, and care partners who had managed to keep the residence COVID free for the majority of 2020 with only a few cases, were challenged with the care of a dozen elderly residents who tested positive for COVID in early 2021. While we refrained from taking Dad out of the residence during the holidays, and he rarely left his room, somehow he was among those who tested positive.
We found ourselves feeling the same helpless emotions described by so many when faced with the inability to enter the building and care for our loved one. We had to totally trust and depend on the staff to nurse our Dad back to health. The director lovingly transported each resident one by one to the local hospital for antibody infusion appointments, and the staff stepped up to provide the care and attention that we, the families could not.
While the separation throughout the entire pandemic has been difficult, this was the most frustrating period yet. When Dad finally tested negative and was able to sit up and talk to us again, the relief was overwhelming.
I sent little gifts of appreciation for Thanksgiving and Christmas, but with Valentine’s Day just a week away I decided to bake heart shaped cookies, each individually hand decorated, to send to the entire staff and other residents. When I shared this idea with Dad he got very excited about the idea of riding around in his electric wheelchair (with some assistance) and handing out each cookie with a friendly “Happy Valentine’s Day” greeting.
Both of my parents loved to give, not only to their family, but even total strangers. If someone in line ahead of my Mom at the grocery store started pulling things off of the conveyer belt because they didn’t have enough money (especially if they had a child in the shopping cart) she would tell the cashier to add the items to her bill – was just one tremendous examples of her giving heart.
Their giving nature was instilled in both my brother and I as well, and while Dad is limited in what he can do, we do our best to provide opportunities for him to still enjoy giving.
I baked four batches of my sugar cookie dough on Friday evening and asked a neighbor- friend if she would mind helping me decorate them. I was challenged with baking, decorating and individually bagging 60 cookies and knew I would need help. I brought 25 of the baked cookies to her the following morning to decorate, while I ran my Saturday morning errands.
I was so surprised when I saw all of the cheerful, fun ways my friend (and her husband) had decorated the cookies. I was so focused on getting so many baked, that I hadn’t considered more than one or two ways to decorate them. I was especially drawn to and inspired by the heart flowers she had created.
When I had finished another round of baked and cooled cookies, I started decorating and had so much fun making designs I would not have thought of without their creative collage of inspiration.
I baked and decorated well past 9 p.m. and started again Sunday morning. I had completed decorating and bagging around 11 a.m. Sixty cookies ready for Daddy “Cupid” to deliver this Valentine’s Day. The joy it will bring him in the giving, and to those in the receiving was worth all of the time and effort and I’m so grateful for the help of my friends.
While Valentine’s Day is mostly associated with Sweethearts, romance and love, in these trying times where we’ve had to rely on others to lovingly care for our family members – Valentine’s Day for me is about those who have shown their “sweet” giving hearts; those who have done their best to fill in as a family member and demonstrate that no matter how difficult things get, human kindness far outweighs all the difficulties. Who has shown their “heart” to you lately? Find a way to show them yours.
The New Orleans Roosevelt Hotel (formerly The Fairmont Hotel) hosts an annual event called Teddy Bear Tea during the holiday season. It’s a very elegant festive celebration with a traditional afternoon tea, and activities that include Santa visiting the tables around the room, and taking pictures with children; Christmas stories are read, there are an array of Christmas lights in the halls, a beautifully made enormous gingerbread house along with other activities and each child receives an annual teddy bear.
A friend of mine has taken one granddaughter to this event for several years, and as the number of granddaughters increased (now currently 6 in all) they’ve attended as group to the festive event. This year, as with all things 2020, my friend decided she wanted to try to recreate some of the sparkle and charm from the event closer to home and called me to help her brainstorm possible venues. Within less than 10 minutes I had given her enough ideas and inspiration to convince her she could host a Teddy Bear Tea in her home. And so the story begins…..
T’was the month of Christmas and throughout the world, gathering was discouraged, not even for little girls. An annual holiday tradition, shared with their Nana, would have to be rethought with some magic from Santa. A call was quickly made, to one of his elves and suddenly ideas were flowing in delves. Nana didn’t want fancy, stuffy or bore; she wanted pretty and playful activities galore.
The Elf scratched her head and wrinkled her nose, conjuring memories began to flow. Remembering a cookie decorated with little hands, icing, sprinkles and sugary sand. Little cupcakes topped with fairies, or mini cheesecakes filled with cherries. Mini sandwiches rolled like candy, or tiny Christmas Tree pizzas would be quit dandy.
Inspiration found on Pinterest
On to the pantry, the Elf searched through her cutters and found the large teddy bear that was used and worn more than others. These cookies were made since her own daughter was little, then decorated with icing, sprinkles and shared giggles.
With icing and sprinkles all in their places, the bears 🐻 would come alive with their wardrobe and faces. With small candy eyes and a large chocolate chip nose; or a variety of options from their heads to their toes.
While the tradition is a tea, only hot chocolate will do, and she’d just seen a version that was festive and new. Filled with mini marshmallows, and hot chocolate mix, these hot chocolate bombs would be just the right fix. All that is needed, is the perfect sized cup, to pour hot milk over then drink it right up!
When the weekend arrived, the elf decided to bake, knowing the difference her effort would make. Teddy bears ready and snowflakes for sweets – Nana could add to her basket of treats. Tightly wrapped and ready for the day, all Nana had to do was whisk them away.
Looking for ribbon, the Elf searched a box – that rattled and clattered as she opened it up. As she peered inside what she found made her glow, “I can make jingle bell necklaces with little red bows!” How special the day is going to be, the girls will surely be tickled with glee!
As the time grew nearer the ideas were still spinning, small pieces of wrapping paper had the Elf grinning. Carefully she began to trim right away, creating a bed where the bear cookie would lay. Repurpose, repurpose, repurpose I say, it’s so much better than throwing away!
The table set and the bears at the ready, the girls would be thrilled to meet their new Teddy! Nana read Christmas stories and they played fun games, then decorated their cookies giving each one a name. Filled with giggles, sugar and memories; their decorated cookies and brand new teddies, the day was such fun, yes a great success – now Nana was left to clean up the mess! But the day was lovely with it’s new rendition and I believe Nana has a new tradition.
As the girls returned home with their teddy bears in tow, dreaming of presents, Christmas trees and snow; relaxed and snuggled warm in their beds, joyful memories of their day with Nana would dance through their heads. With the young girls happy and dancing with cheer, we wish a Merry Christmas to all and Happy New Year!
Three more of my friends gathered with me on a Sunday, for an afternoon lunch. All of my gatherings require a little bit of a theme and then a menu. I decided on a White Christmas theme, attempting to make all of the food in shades of white. I wanted to serve a 2020 Beaujolais Nouveau – so I decided to call it a “White Christmas Lunch with a Splash of Red.”
Often I create a list of options for the menu, while also trying to create images in my head of what I might be able to use for the table decor. I chose to use white snow globes surrounded my mini snow globe ornaments (Martha Stewart that I found at Homegoods); artificial garland, a string of battery operated clear globe lights with etched snowflakes and when I was picking up the ingredients for the menu I found a bouquet of Star of Bethlehem flowers that I tucked into the garland. My table seats 8, but to practice safe distancing, I placed two at each end and two in the middle of each side of the table.
I placed a mini snow globe ornament into small cupcake holders with some crinkled paper and then slipped it into little cellophane bag that was set by each place setting as a favor for everyone to take home.
When everyone arrived, we toasted 2020 goodbye with is 2020 Beaujolais Nouveau that was very good and then sat at the table to say a blessing and enjoy the memo I had prepared.
The Menu: 4 servings
The dessert course had to be started a day ahead for the refrigeration process needed to set the various layers. What you’ll need.
1 quart of prepared eggnog ( I just purchase one from the dairy department)
1 envelop of unflavored gelatin
2 tbsps. water (separated)
1 jar of prepared caramel sauce
1 tablespoon liqueur or brandy, rum (optional)
To create the layers I made half of the eggnog panna cotta for the first layer. In a small bowl mix 1 1/8 tsp. of gelatin with 1 tablespoon of water. Place in the microwave for 15 seconds. This will liquify the gelatin (stir to mix and ensure well dissolved). Place one cup of eggnog into a microwave safe bowl and warm for 30 seconds. It just has to be slightly warm, don’t let it get hot. Using a fine strainer, pour the dissolved gelatin into the warmed eggnog and mix well. Pour equally in four glasses (I used this dessert coupes that were my mother’s). Place in the refrigerator for 3 hours or until set.
Using a good caramel sauce, place four to five teaspoons into small microwave safe bowl and warm 15 seconds. I mixed in a tablespoon of a French pear liqueur, but brandy or dark rum, or Frangelico liqueur are also options. Spoon even layers of the loosened caramel over the set eggnog layer. Refrigerate 3 hours.
Repeat the first step creating a 2nd eggnog layer. Refrigerate 3 hours or more until set.
I wanted to create a snowflake on the top, and years ago I saw a snowflake created on the top of of cocktail with a stencil and cinnamon. Unfortunately the I thought of this idea two days before. I searched online for a template, but it was too late to order. So I printed one and cut out the sections with a small pair of manicure scissors. Using a mixture of Chinese Five Spice and Nutmeg – I laid the stencil over the glass and sifted the spices over the pattern. It didn’t give me as clean of a snowflake as I’d hoped for but it was still pretty. I added white edible pearls to dress it up.
Mini Cheese Plate
On to the small cheese plate. While at Whole Foods, I browsed through the cheese case and noticed a sign the indicated all of the gouda cheeses were 50% off. A gouda with black truffles caught my eye and a small block of it would be only $3.00. So I bought it and a small log of honey goat cheese. Once home I allowed the goat cheese to come to room temperature while finely chopping some dried cranberries, pistachios and crystalized ginger. When the goat cheese had softened, I rolled and slightly pressed it into the ingredients, then wrapped it in clear plastic wrap and then refrigerated it over night so it would firm back up. When ready to serve slice in to 1/4 inch disks and place on small plates with the other cheese (cubed). The pack of endive I had purchased had both green and purple endive, so I used a few of the purple leaves to add color and a few green grapes. Everyone had small ramekin with garlic bread toasts to eat with the cheeses.
White Velvet Soup with Gremolata
The soup doesn’t have much of a story. Giada made it on of her shows several years ago and I’d made it once for a cocktail party served in tiny bowls. With my White Christmas theme, and unusual ingredients of parsnips and fennel , I knew it would be a light soup everyone would enjoy that’s delicious. Find her recipe in the link below.
I started layering this salad in a large bowl, but quickly realized it would be prettier to layer it on each individual plate. I put the list below in the exact order that I used to layer the veggies.
1 Napa Cabbage (sliced in ribbons and split into four – the first bottom layer)
1 or 2 green endive (cut the end off and separate leaves; I placed each under the cabbage about 4 per plate so the pretty edges of the leaves would be visible)
1 bunch of watercress ( cut the top leaves with a short stem remaining off and gently spread over the Napa Cabbage)
1 Fennel bulb (cut the top fronds off) split bulb in half and cut the core out; use a mandolin or very sharp knife make paper thin slices of fennel and scatter over the items above.
1 jar or can of artichoke hearts (drain and pull some of the individual leaves off and scatter over the salad. I used pieces from two for each plate)
Small bunch of green grapes ( slice two or three grapes into thin disks per plate and scatter over the salad).
1 small granny smith apple (Slice off two sides and julienne -tiny sticks. I then dip them quickly into a small bowl with water and lemon juice to prevent browning. Sprinkle over the salad.
Micro greens (optional -alfalfa sprouts are also an option – sprinkle over).
Grape seed oil (drizzle a very small stream over each salad (a fruity olive oil can be used also)
White balsamic vinegar (sprinkle a small stream over each salad)
1/4 cup of toasted pine nuts – sprinkled over each salad
a pinch of Maldon sea salt flakes over each (or kosher salt)
See below for warm crab dressing
For a delicate salad a light sprinkle of white balsamic vinegar and a drizzle of olive oil (or grape seed oil) is all you need. No heavy complicated dressings. The salad above could easily be served ending here, but to further elevate and top with a little white decadence I used this warm crabmeat dressing.
Chef Kevin Graham’s Hot Crabmeat Dressing
Chef Kevin Graham was at one time back in the late 80’s and early 90’s, the chef at the Windsor Court Grille Room in New Orleans. Everyone raved about the excellent food served at the hotel restaurant. He published a book of recipes created for the Grille Room that I purchased and I’ve made this dressing for special occasions several times over the years.
1/4 cup olive oil
1 shallot, peeled and finely chopped
1 clove garlic, peeled and finely chopped
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar
(I added a teaspoon of honey)
pinch of cayenne pepper
salt to taste
Freshly ground white or black pepper
4 ounces of white crab meat
Heat oil in a small saucepan over medium heat. Add the shallots and garlic, saute about 2 minutes or until tender. Whisk in mustard, vinegar, honey and cayenne. Season with salt and pepper. Fold in crabmeat and cook for a few seconds until heated through. Spoon over the stack salad greens.
I found an instrumental winter music station on YouTube with images of snow falling that I played in the background, I had put my Christmas tree in the dining room this year so while surrounded by the tree with all of it’s trimmings, twinkle lights, snow globes, and candles flickering, my friends and I enjoyed a quiet, relaxing afternoon lunch while visiting and catching up after this long year of separation. I can’t think of a better way to spend the afternoon. Whether your Christmas is white or tropical (like ours often are in the South), may it filled with the spirit of Christ, joyful hope for the new year and truly be bright! ❄️
As a young girl in a military family, we moved almost every year until I was in the 4th grade. We then lived for a few years each, in both northern and southern California before Dad finally retired from the service. Military families often live far away from family and miss out on the annual traditions or routines that usually form from being near them. We didn’t have Christmas Eve’s at Uncle so in so’s or alternated Christmas Day dinners at each of our grandparent’s houses. Christmas was usually just dinner for the four of us, Mom, Dad, my brother and I.
Having missed out on holiday traditions with other family members as a kid, it was important to me that my daughter have family traditions when she was growing up. I was inspired by my ex-husband’s large family, who routinely celebrated different holidays throughout the year their own unique way with a large family picnic for Easter and a Christmas Eve gathering every year that I made sure she attended.
In preparation for Christmas, three families that resided in homes all on the same street gathered in the late afternoon on Thanksgiving Day to pick a family member’s name from a bowl. On Christmas Eve there was a party at one of the three homes along with traditional food and a gift exchange. My food memory from those parties so many years later were Grammy’s shrimp balls, at the time made by a beloved Aunt nestled in a chrome insulated container that I couldn’t wait to see arrive and placed on the table.
Another tradition that took place for several years involved a group of family members that got together in early November and drove across Lake Pontchartrain to a Christmas tree farm. Each family would select their tree, pay for it and tag it. The Friday after Thanksgiving, everyone would make the journey back to the farm to cut the tree down, wrap it up and bring it home. The following Saturday night I would host a tree trimming party for friends and family. When I think back to the small townhouse living room I had back then and the number of people that would cram inside, I’m not sure how we did it, but everyone eagerly attended year after year.
These were the days long before computers, so with a few library books and a typewriter, I typed all of the lyrics to 36 Christmas carols. I cut out and taped some images and drew others to some of the pages. I then organized the pages so that after I made photocopies and folded them in half, they would form a little song book. The children would sit in front of their decorated tree and sing a few Christmas carols.
While I didn’t ask my guests to bring an ornament, I received some beautiful versions that have become treasured classics -handled with special care as they are hung on my tree all of these years later. Year after year, as I unpack them from their layers of bubble wrap or tissue, the memories of those parties come rushing back.
Whenever a party includes children it’s imperative to have an activity to keep them entertained, especially in a small home. Upstairs I had an open loft that didn’t have any specific purpose, but offered enough space to place two folding tables with chairs. For the first party I baked cookies formed into various Christmas themed shapes such as candy canes, bells, and trees. I then purchased a variety of sprinkles and colored sugars and cans of white frosting that I used food color to make green, red and yellow. The kids sat at the tables with their plastic knives and dipped into the cans of frosting to slather on their cookies and then sprinkle with various candy decorations having a ball! I would convince them to allow the cookies to dry, and then ask them to come downstairs to decorate the tree and sing Christmas carols. We then wrapped their cookies in cellophane bags for their journey home.
In the years that followed, I found a large Teddy Bear cookie cutter. I thought that something with a larger surface, maybe rolled out a little thicker, would be easier for the kids to handle. I could not have imagined not only how much they would love it at the time (as they left with bears loaded down with chocolate or vanilla icing and about a pound of various candies), but years later one of the mothers told me her daughter still remembers decorating those cookies and she’s now in her late 30’s.
Now I have grandchildren, but they live one State over and with jobs and school schedules I don’t see them as much as I would like. While they often come home for Christmas, it’s usually after the tree has been decorated, so starting with my first grandchild, I have baked those same Teddy Bear cookies and mailed them with tubes of icing and various sprinkles so she could decorate her cookies when she decorated the tree with my daughter and her husband. Now with three grandchildren, every year I’ve sent the cookies and the kids have followed the tradition of a night of cookie decorating. Last year I asked my granddaughter who was at the time just days from her 11th birthday, if I should keep making the Teddy Bear cookies and she immediately said “Yes! Nana, it’s a tradition!”
For the past two years, their little family has stopped by on the Saturday after Thanksgiving on their way home from visiting their grandparents in Alabama to decorate my tree. This year while Mom and Dad enjoyed a college football game, we played Christmas music and shared an evening of decorating my Christmas tree and then gathered around the table to decorate two new cookie shapes – a large Christmas Tree and the popular red truck with a Christmas Tree (that the boys decided to make blue.) Of course by the time we had finished the Christmas tree cookie, my littlest demanded it was time to eat his snowflake cookie. (I mean a little boy can only hold out for so long!)
Packed in those same cellophane bags, ready for the journey home, somehow all of these years later, I’ve managed to re-create a similar tradition with my grandchildren. Whether in their own home or here with me, I hope that like those other small children who once attended my tree trimming parties years ago, they will remember these moments as our “Christmas cookie tradition.”
Nana’s Cookie Recipe
2 sticks (1/2 cup each) of unsalted butter (room temperature)
1 cup granulated sugar
1 tsp vanilla paste (or) pure vanilla extract
1 tbsp pure almond extract (yes 1 tablespoon)
The zest of one naval orange (the entire orange – no white pith)
Sift together and set aside:
3 cups all purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
½ tsp kosher salt
(for a chocolate dough add 1/3 cup of unsweetened cocoa powder)
Mixing bowl and mixer – add room temp butter and 1 cup of sugar and mix until creamy and smooth; add egg, extracts and zest. Mix until combined.
Add dry ingredients ½ cup at a time on low speed to avoid powder flying everywhere, and then mix on medium until the dough forms into a ball.
Split dough into two square disks and wrap in clear plastic wrap. Refrigerate for 1 hour.
Note: if refrigerated longer (or overnight) dough will have to be taken out and sit for a while before attempting to roll out. It will be too stiff. For optimum results work dough 1 hr after chilling.
Clear a shelf as much as possible to fit a full cookie sheet into the refrigerator. (I usually try to move around items all to the same height that I can set the tray on top level).
Pre-heat oven 375 degrees.
Place one disk of dough between two pieces of plastic wrap (this prevents the dough from sticking to the counter and the rolling pin, with no flour dusting or mess to clean up) and roll out in one direction, turn clockwise and roll again to about ¼ inch thickness. A good trick is to put chop sticks on each side of the dough and roll the rolling pin over the chop sticks for thickness to be even. (If too thin when decorating the cookies will break and the edges could over bake).
Remove the top layer of plastic and dip the cookie cutter into flour before pressing into the dough to cut each shape for a clean cut and transfer cut cookies to a parchment paper or silicon sheet liked cookie sheet. Once the sheet is filled, pop it into the refrigerator for about 7 minutes. (This helps the cookie keep its shape without spreading – if too warm the dough will spread).
While the cookie sheet is rechilling. Pull together the dough scraps into a disk and roll between plastic wrap again. Same process as above and place on a second lined cookie sheet.
Place the first re-chilled sheet in the oven with timer on 15 minutes – chill the 2nd sheet for 7. When the time for the 2nd tray is up, the first tray is half way through its baking process, turn it around and add the 2nd tray. When the timer goes off for the first tray – remove and reset timer for 7 more minutes for the 2nd tray. Cookies should be slightly golden.
Let tray cool for 5 minutes and then transfer to a cookie rack to completely cool. Repeat with the 2nd tray when timer alerts.
Repeat with all of the remaining dough.
Cookies must be completely cooled before decorating.
Cookies can be stacked into an air tight container up to a week – if you want to decorate at a later date. Once decorated, they are still good for a week and stay pretty fresh if sealed in a good container.
Note: Recipe used for: Annual Teddy Bear cookies for tree trimming parties; various holidays for grandchildren’s classes, cookie decorating with grandchildren and gifts to neighbors; 2019- Teddy Bear dropped for Red truck with Christmas Tree.
Other flavor options tested:
• For those with nut allergies – omit almond extract and increase vanilla to 1 ½ tsp.
• Lemon or Lime zest in lieu of orange
• Shown above -Add 1/3 cup of cocoa powder to dry ingredients for a chocolate cookie (any more dries out the dough).
• Powdered dehydrated raspberry or strawberry (1/3 cup) to dry ingredients for a pink cookie – great for Valentine’s Day heart cookies.
Thanksgiving is only a few days away and there is still time to show gratitude to those who have helped us throughout this complicated year. My family has been very grateful to the group of kind and caring nurses, care partners and managers that have worked diligently to care for our Dad who is in an assisted living and memory care residence. The staff has followed guidelines all year to protect themselves and our loved one from the coronavirus.
I truly enjoy giving little gifts from the heart, but this year my full-time job has really consumed a lot of my time and energy (so grateful for my job); and slightly exhausted my usual thoughtfulness that seems to come in small bursts these days. I realized I hadn’t formed a plan as of yet, for the little gifts I wanted to give the staff – so when the weekend arrived I hit the stores in search of “a little something” to say thanks.
First I had to reach out to one of the managers to get a head count to prepare for. She told me there were 12 including herself (and I later found out this did’t include the 5 nurses that I later had to make another trip for). Make sure you ask questions to get all of the information you need. I certainty didn’t want to leave anyone out.
I was in Homegoods and found these Christmas Tree scented candles that really do smell like a fresh cut tree. The refreshing, familiar scent brought the feelings of Christmas straight to my heart. Now as you know if you’re a Homegoods shopper, the digging and searching began praying the entire time that I would find three boxes of four that could easily make into 12 individual gifts. I was so excited (and grateful) when I found the three boxes I needed.
I didn’t want the packaging to look too “Christmasy” and while I was in line browsing through what I affectionately call the “booby trap” area, I found two sets of six bags in a simple black and white pattern with elegant green velvet ribbons. The pattern looked familiar to me, and I left the line to go back to the wrapping paper area where I found the matching tags.
Back home, I pulled out some gray tissue paper from my stash, and repurposing the ribbon on the box of candles (I folded in half and cut and then folded the two pieces in half again and cut to form 4 pieces of ribbon); I tied the gray tissue paper over each of the votives and placed them inside of one of the bags.
I then wrote a small note, creating two columns and sizing so that when cut I could use a glue stick to attach the note on the back of each card and tuck it into the bags. It took a little time, but I then carefully placed all 12 into a cardboard box and sealed it shut and was off to the Sr. Living Residence.
When I arrived, the manager that had given me the number of her staff happened to be at the front desk. I waved her over to the door, and asked her if she could please assist my Dad to distribute the little gifts during the week. It makes him happy to give little gifts to others. So she said she’ll be back on Tuesday, and she’ll get him ready in his mobile chair and guide him around the building to say Thank you and give his gifts of gratitude.
A true gift is one that comes from the heart and lets someone know how much you appreciate them. Another is allowing a beautiful elderly gentlemen enjoy the thrill of giving.
A tradition of baking and shipping homemade holiday cookies to my grandchildren started approximately nine years ago. My granddaughter attended a Pre-K3 class, and starting with Halloween followed by Thanksgiving, Valentine’s Day, Christmas, ending with Easter, I baked, iced, individually wrapped and boxed cookies for her and her classmates. Four years later my middle Grayson came along, and when he started his Pre-K-3 class, my cookie duty doubled, requiring cookies for both his and his sister’s classes. Another four years passed and my youngest grandson arrived, but fortunately for me, the schools would no longer allow baked goods for the students due to the variety of gluten and nut allergies. I say fortunately because I’m not sure I could have made it through the baking and decorating of nearly 100 decorated cookies.
Now the cookies I send are just for the grandkids (and their parents) with a few extras to share with friends or co-workers. I’m no pastry chef, just a Nana trying to make her grandchildren happy. This year as I rolled, cut and baked my traditional cookie shapes, an idea formed that may inspire parents with a safe way to make Halloween fun and playful during this Covid 19 time we currently live in.
My trick or treaters usually receive one of my “crackers” filled with candies and plastic toys. Fashioned after the English Christmas cracker, I used the center roll from toilet paper, and wrapped the cylinder with Halloween tissue paper (it could be as simple as orange or black solid tissue paper from the local dollar store). Each end of the paper cinched with a piece of ribbon and usually a little black spider ring. The kids just loved getting something different that they got to unwrap when they got home.
This year, a great twist would be to fill the crackers with a “trick” like dried beans that are the same weight as candy, or a “treat” actual candy. Then hide the filled crackers around the house or yard and send the kids out to look for them (just like an Easter egg hunt). Some could be filled with a plastic spider, or other creepy crawlers that would result in a special prize, like a box of cracker jacks, a large chocolate bar or other fund prize.
Create a prize board with images of the “special” critters so that they know that just because the cracker is light in weight it may bear a big prize.
With this idea in mind, as I cut out and decorated the cookies I made one skeleton different from the others, two ghosts that faced the opposite way and were covered with orange and black sprinkles and a brown bat. All of the cookies were wrapped as shown below. Something like cookies could also be hidden and whomever found the “different” cookie could get a prize a special prize. (Sticker books, a small toy, etc.
The idea is simple and easy so that it’s suited for all ages. A scavenger hunt would be a great idea, but create more work to create clues and smaller children would have a harder time solving the clues, but if your children are old enough hiding items around the house hidden away and found by reading a special clue (i.e., “I’m dizzy from spinning round and round “- a stuffed animal hidden in the dryer; “I’m simply going to freeze if you don’t find me!” something in the freezer.)
I hope these ideas will inspire you to create a simple, but fun alternative for your children or grandchildren this Halloween. Start saving and ask your neighbors for help saving those toilet paper rolls and have a safe, fun and HAPPY HALLOWEEN!!
Nearly everyone we know is experiencing some form of stress in 2020, from health concerns of a family member, to financial restraints, home schooling children, and more. Here in the South alone, our anxiety level has been on edge as we have waited out multiple hurricanes and tropical storms. As we try to slowly and carefully gather with small groups of friends once again, I extended an invitation to three of my neighbors for a late afternoon autumn lunch.
One of the ladies has been taking care of an ailing family member for a long time, and I thought she could use a day out of the house; another recently put her house up for sale and will be moving away within a month; and the third organized a neighborhood bunco group several years ago that brought us all together and has been one of my closest friends for nearly seven years. While my work life has been extremely stressful and busy, I find my joy in spoiling others. So this, my second Autumn luncheon was scheduled more than 14 days since the fondue and was limited to three guests.
A French Country theme works well in the Fall, and I prepared a Fall inspired menu that was partially prepared by me and partially purchased. I made the roasted carrot ginger soup a day ahead (most dishes taste even better the next day) , the poached pears and palmier I prepare the morning of the lunch; and I purchased the Autumn salad at a local cafe’.
The Autumnal salad was a new item on the menu that I had tried the weekend before, filled with roasted beets and sweet potatoes, red quinoa, pumpkin and sunflower seeds, golden raisins, spring greens and frisee, green apples, small broccoli florets, radicchio and topped with alpha sprouts. Tossed in an apple cider vinaigrette, it couldn’t be more perfect. There were so many ingredients that it was just more feasible to purchase two salads that I split four ways.
Apple Pie Wine
Roasted Carrot Ginger Soup with Crème Fraîche, Gremolata and Fried Shallots
2 lb bag of carrots (peeled and chopped into 1 inch pieces)
2 macintosh apples (peeled and cubed same size as carrots)
fresh ginger (1 tablespoon grated)
1 lemon zest the entire lemon ( juice see below)
salt and pepper
1 garlic bulb sliced in half horizontally
2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup of coconut milk
1 quart vegetable stock
1 large yellow onion (thinly sliced)
Juice of 1/2 of the lemon)
1 small fresno pepper chopped
2 large shallots (thinly sliced on a mandolin)
1 cup of canola or vegetable oil
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Drizzle a baking sheet with about 1 tbsp. olive oil. Place cubed carrots and apples, grated ginger, lemon zest, 1 teaspoon of salt and 1/2 tsp. ground black pepper into a large bowl. Drizzle with about a tablespoon of olive oil and then stir or toss with hands until everything is coated evenly. Pour onto the oiled baking sheet and spread into on even layer. Nestle in the halved garlic bulb and drizzle with a little olive oil. Bake for 20 minutes, then remove the the oven and toss with a spatula (turning carrots and apples over). Return to the oven and bake another 20 to 30 minutes until carrots are tender.
Meanwhile, add the thinly sliced onion and place is a small non-stick pan. Over medium heat slowly saute’. Add small amounts of water as they begin to dry or stick to the pan. Watch carefully until golden brown making sure not to burn. May take up to 20 minutes or more. Set aside.
Remove carrot tray from the oven. Let cool for about 15 minutes.
Carefully squeeze the softened garlic over the cooked carrots and dispose of all of the husks. Deseed and finely chop the fresno pepper (a 1/2 teaspoon of red pepper flakes is an option). Depending on the size of your food processor, you may be able to puree everything at one time or you may have to divide the ingredients into small portions and puree in batches. If making in batches try to use equal parts of carrot, apple, caramelized onions and fresno pepper. Add 1/2 cup of vegetable stock and puree. Continue to add stock 1/2 cup at a time until you reach the consistency that you prefer. Pour each batch into a medium saucepan to reheat. When all of the batches are complete and transferred to the pot, add the juice of 1/2 lemon and 1/2 cup of coconut milk to add a little richness. You may of course add as little or as much as you would like according to your taste. Just remember to taste as you add. Salt and pepper to taste.
Gremolata (optional) – this is a mixture of herbs (parsley, cilantro, thyme, sage) finely chopped, finely grated parmesan, toasted chopped nuts, and lemon zest. I even used some of the carrot tops (greens). Nut options can be pine nuts, pistachios, walnuts or other nuts can be added. A gremolata adds a little color and herbaceous freshness to the top of the soup.
Lastly, slice two large shallots on a mandolin (or slice very thinly with a sharp knife.) Place 1 cup of canola or vegetable oil to a medium saucepan and heat. Add the shallots and cook with an occasional stir until golden brown and crispy. Place fried shallots into a sieve or strainer to drain the oil. Sprinkle with kosher salt.
To serve place the heated carrot soup in a bowl, either swirl a small amount of creme fraiche (or sour cream or greek yogurt) over the surface. I placed my creme fraiche into a condiment squirt bottle, but you can use the tip of a spoon or even a zip bag and make a small cut in the bottom corner to apply the cream. Top with gremolata and then fried shallots.
The table was also dressed with a couple of pumpkins and a crock vase filled with sunflowers and hydrangeas. The napkins wrapped with twine and a crocosmia stem in bright orange.
I always have some kind of little take home favor for my guests. I found these miniature mums that were wrapped in Halloween paper that had a plastic coating. I removed one of the wraps and used it as a template to shape some gift wrap I had to recover each. I used a small tube of glue, to attache bot together, re-wrapped the little pot and tied with black gingham. I then cut out one of the gold bees and glued it over the ribbon knot. Trimmed the ribbon edges and placed one at each place setting. I also make pumpkin bread loaves that I wrapped and sent everyone home with.
A few hours later, we had enjoyed an afternoon of sharing the year’s experiences, offering support for each other’s future and a satisfying meal.
I have several friend between my wine club, book club and mother’s tea groups. So in few weeks I’ll be hosting yet another small luncheon for another 2 or 3. See you soon!
This is the first Easter Sunday that I didn’t have my family gathered around my table due to the “social distancing” world we are currently living in, but that didn’t stop me from preparing a meal and doing a little curbside delivery to my brother and a couple of my neighbors. I purchased a small two pound ham, made a pot of smothered corn from fresh cobs, and decided to do a little refrigerator and freezer dive to make something with items I already had on hand.
Crab 🦀 Pie
I remembered I had a pound of lump blue crabmeat in the freezer and found some mini pie shells I had purchased and forgotten to use. I started a small roux (from equal parts flour and olive oil) in a non-stick skillet and allowed it to become a mahogany brown before adding chopped onion, celery, red peppers and garlic. After those ingredients cooked, I added about 1/2 tsp salt, 1/4 tsp. of black pepper and small sprinkling of red pepper flakes – stirring to combine before adding about 1 cup of boxed seafood stock. The consistency should be saucy, but not watery before folding in 1/2 lb. of crabmeat and 1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese until evenly incorporated. The end result should be similar to the consistency of mashed potatoes. Place the tin lined pie shells (or a full size pie crust prepared in a pie plate) onto a Silpat lined sheet pan (this will prevent the mini or single pie plate from sliding around). Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Fill each shell with the crabmeat mixture, level each off and then bake for 30 to 40 minutes when the pie crust edges (including the bottom of the crust -take a peek) are also golden. SO that was quick and easy and delicious!
Spring Veggie🥕🌶 Tart
As I returned to my refrigerator to survey it’s contents, a container of pencil thin asparagus that I originally planned to oven roast caught my attention. I remembered seeing different versions of tarts made with asparagus on Pinterest and searched the freezer for some puffed pastry. Spring also calls from carrots, and the many versions of ways to cook carrots that I’ve seen on various cooking shows passed through my mind. So I decided to put both ideas together. Here’s what you’ll need.
9″ x 13″ sheet pan (half sheet)
1 Sheet puffed pastry (place in refrigerator overnight)
flour for dusting counter
4 to 5 slender carrots (peeled, ends cut off and sliced down the middle).
2 tbsp each olive oil and butter (in to a skillet)
1 tbsp honey
2 tsp chili oil
salt and pepper
8-12 pencil thin fresh asparagus
5 oz. container of shaved parmesan cheese (or shave a block with a vegetable peeler) – or shredded Italian blend cheese or other melty cheese like or Gruyère or white cheddar
fresh chives, fresh thyme
3/4 cup heavy cream
The photos above show the steps for preparing the carrot side of the tart. Select the thinner shaped carrots, peel, cut ends off and slice lengthwise. Add olive oil and butter to a non-stick skillet and when melted add carrots (sliced side down). Place another skillet on top of the carrots to prevent curling. They need to be straight for the tart. Cook for about 5 minutes until slightly blistered or browned on medium heat. (Carefully remove the top skillet using a dish cloth (it will be hot with steamy condensation on the bottom) then turn each carrot over. Add honey, chili oil, salt and pepper. Cover (I don’t have a lid that fits the skillet that I used, so I improvised using a piece of foil and splatter screen to hold it down) and cook until centers of carrots are fork tender- about 5-7 minutes. Drain the liquids from the carrots on a rack and set aside.
On to the puffed pastry. Line the half sheet pan with parchment paper. Dust the countertop with flour and roll out the puffed pastry one inch wider than all sides of the pan sheet half sheet pan (about 11″ x 15″) so that when placed inside the sheet pan the pastry goes up the sides (needed to hold egg mixture in). Dock (pierce) the surface of the pastry with a fork. This stops the pastry from puffing in the center. Place the tray of pastry in the freezer for 5 minutes to re-chill and pre-heat the oven to 400-425 degrees (depends on your oven. )
Meanwhile, measure 3/4 cup heavy cream, add two eggs, chopped chives and thyme.
Sprinkle the pastry with a handful of cheese; line the asparagus on one side and the carrots on the other; pour the milk and egg mixture evenly over the vegetables and then sprinkle another handful of cheese over the top. Bake from 30 to 40 minutes (depends on oven) until edges and bottom crust is golden brown for a crispy – not soggy crust.
When the tart first comes out of the oven it will puffed up, but it will sink as it cools. The tart is delicious warm, but also works at room temperature. Whether for brunch, lunch with a salad or a side dish, both of these tarts are simply delicious and easy to please.