Have You Tried Wool Dryer Balls?

Wool dryer balls – the greatest thing to happen to laundry since the invention of the washer and dryer!

Ellie’s Best Wool Dryer Balls

I am a bit of a tree hugger, but I draw the line at sacrificing quality or efficacy when looking for eco-friendly cleaning solutions.  A few years back I went thru a phase of trying every “green” laundry detergent and fabric softener I could find – even making my own.

I discovered it’s not eco-friendly when you have to wash something twice because your all-natural detergent stinks.  And it was rage-inducing when crazy expensive, “green” dryer sheets repeatedly left grease stains all over my clothes.  I can’t use liquid fabric softener because we are on a septic system (and hey, I guarantee you your municipal water supplier doesn’t appreciate you using it either), and dryer sheets have their own drawbacks.

One, they coat the sensors in your dryer with a waxy film.  Unless you wipe the sensor strip(s) down before every load, your dryer can’t tell if your clothes are dry or not.  It then runs waaaay past the point it needs to.  Hard on your clothes and your wallet.  Two, I’m not super keen on coating all my clothes – and thus my body – with all those petrochemicals.

I recently saw an advert for wool dryer balls and thought, “what the heck is that?!”  Never heard of ’em.  A few minutes on “the Googles” told me they are all the rage, and for good reason.  I was skeptical, but I bought a set of 4 to give ’em a whirl, and immediately bought 4 more after using them.

These babies are little woolen miracle balls!

What are they?  Wool dryer balls are tennis ball sized dealios made of felted wool.  You pop them in the dryer with your clothes (4 for a small load, 6 for a medium load and 8 for a large/bulky load).

How do they work?  They tumble around with your clothes, absorbing a bit of moisture, but mostly keeping your clothes tumbling freely.

What’s in it for you?  LOTS!

  • Your clothes will dry faster. The dryer balls keep your clothes from clumping and twisting together.  Free-tumbling clothes dry faster.  Faster is not only cheaper, but it’s better for your clothes because the most wear and tear your clothes receive is in the dryer.
  • Your clothes come out WAY less wrinkled.  Again, this is because your clothes will be tumbling much more freely.  I hate wrinkles and religiously iron, and I can’t believe how much less ironing I’m doing.
  • Your clothes come out softer than with fabric softeners.  Not kidding – baby bunny soft!  Even jeans and towels.
  • They are safe to use on towels and other items that should NEVER be treated with fabric softener.  The balls don’t coat your laundry with anything, so there’s no need to separate out loads by what can and can’t have fabric softener.
  • No need to constantly stop the dryer to untangle stuff.  There’s nothing worse than taking out a set of sheets to find half of them dry and the other half wadded in a damp ball.  Major time waster!  Even our king sized flannel sheets tumble so much better.
  • No need to clean the dryer sensor strips each load to eliminate wax buildup.  Wool dryer balls deposit nothing on your clothes or your dryer.
  • 100% eco friendly and a renewable resource. No petroleum products, no perfumes, no waxes, no trees leveled, no plastic jugs, no greasy goop going into your or your town’s septic system.
  • Way, way cheaper than fabric softener.  These babies last for hundreds of loads.

There are no “downsides” that I can think of.  I was a little concerned they would “beat up” my clothes, but haven’t seen any evidence of that.  I’ve been using them for a few months, so I think I would notice if that was happening.

I was also afraid they would be hard on my dryer or make a ton of noise.  They are very soft and very light.  Yes, you can hear them if you are near the dryer, but they are no way clobbering your machine or making a racket.

I bought Ellie’s Best brand dryer balls, but there are many brands, even some handcrafted ones on Etsy.  And if you are crafty, you can probably whip up some for yourself.  However you get them, GET SOME!  Even if you don’t care about the eco benefits, this is a superior product.  Full stop.

Peace lovelies! E <><

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Quick Tip: DIY FREE Potscrubbers

Every once in awhile two problems collide to solve each other…

Problem one:  I love my hand crocheted washcloths because they are fun to make, easy to clean/sterilize and gentle on my dishes.  They are, however, useless when confronted with a stuck on mess.  I refuse to use plastic scruffies because they are expensive, impossible to sterilize so they quickly get nasty, and fall apart after a couple uses.

Problem two:  I am on a mission to reduce the amount of plastic in my life.  I am obsessive about recycling, and I hate it when something plastic has to go in the trash.  So, a few years ago when I started buying shallots in 1lb bags at my warehouse club, I hated throwing out the rather substantial plastic bag they come in (the purple netting above).

Then inspiration struck…

Those plastic netting bags are the PERFECT substitute for a plastic scruffie!

You can fold them into whatever size square you need.  I sometimes insert my washcloth into the bag to create a combo scrubby-washcloth.

When you are done, they unfold completely to quickly and easily clean in soapy water.  They dry practically instantly so NO opportunity for germs, bacteria, mold, etc. to grow!

If I use them on something particularly germy or greasy, I just toss them.  I keep a little bag of them under the sink and grab one whenever I need a bit of scrubbing power.  All kinds of things come in these plastic mesh bags – garlic, citrus fruits, avocados, onions, etc..  I bet you throw out at least one of these a week.

I just LOVE finding a way to reuse something that would otherwise end up in the trash!  Enjoy…  E <><

Easy, Elegant Mushroom Bisque – Plus a Bonus Recipe

This soup blows the doors off the canned stuff and delivers instant comfort. It’s so quick and easy, I actually make it for myself for a weekday lunch, and the leftovers are just as magical the next day!

First let me say that Better Than Bouillon’s Mushroom Base is the magic ingredient.  Mushrooms are naturally full of flavor boosting glutimates (think naturally occurring MSG) so they amp up the flavor of anything they are added to.  This mushroom base is a quick, convenient way to add depth of flavor and umami-liciousness to so many things.

I add it to soups, stews, stir fries, gravies.  A half tsp or so adds that savory “something” without your being able to detect the flavor “mushrooms!”  My man has a primal loathing for mushrooms and even he doesn’t mind it at all when I add this to dishes.

Quick tip:  Better than Bouillon makes a wide range of bases and they are all some of my most-reached-for flavor boosting ingredients.

If you have a jar of this mushroom base and 30 minutes, you can make a swoon worthy, creamy mushroom soup – or – BONUS!  If you stop in the middle of this recipe, you will have a glorious mushroom sauce for steaks, burgers, meatloaf, grilled portobellos or heck, a piping hot, fluffy mountain of mashed potatoes!

Here’s what you need:

  • 8 oz of sliced mushrooms – all one kind, or as I used here, a packaged, precut blend
  • 2 Tbsp clarified butter (I love Trader Joe’s) or 1 Tbsp butter and 1 Tbsp neutral oil like grapeseed
  • 1 shallot, finely chopped
  • 2 tsp Better Than Bouillon Mushroom Base
  • healthy splash of DRY Sherry, Brandy, DRY Vermouth, white wine, apple cider – optional but adds so much flavor
  • 2 Tbsp flour
  • 1 1/2 cups water
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 1/2 tsp dried fine herbs or 1/4 tsp dried tarragon – optional but again, lots of flavor
  • 1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • kosher salt, to taste if needed

Here’s what to do:

In a 4 qt Dutch oven or heavy bottomed sauce pan, sautee mushrooms in butter over medium heat

When the mushrooms start to pick up a little color…

add the shallots and sautee till they are tender and translucent.

Deglaze the pan with a healthy splash (2-4 Tbsp max) of dry Sherry, dry Vermouth, brandy, crisp white wine or even apple cider.

If you don’t want to use any of these options, skip this step.  But you’re skipping a lot of flavor.  Just sayin’…

When all the liquid has evaporated, add the flour, stir and cook for 2 minutes.

Resist the temptation to add more fat.  It might look a bit dry, but it will be fine!

Add the water, mushroom base, and black pepper.  Stir, bring to a boil and simmer a few minutes to thoroughly cook the flour.

At this point you have an amazingly flavorful mushroom gravy – just add salt to taste.  If you want it thicker, simmer a bit longer.  If you want it thinner, add more water.

To move on to create mushroom bisque…

add the fine herbs/tarragon and milk.  Bring to a simmer – once you’ve added the milk, don’t let the soup come to a full boil.

You can add more milk if you want a thinner texture, or a splash of half and half to add richness.

You have some texture choices with this soup. You can serve as is, hit it with a few bursts of your stick (immersion) blender to break up the mushrooms into smaller bits, or full-on puree it for a silky smooth soup.

I like the middle road of partly pureed with lots of mushroom bits, so I grabbed my stick blender.

This soup is rich tasting but not too crazy on the fat.  It will serve 4 as appetizer portions or 2 for a meal with bread and a mixed green salad.  If you need more servings, this recipe is easy to double, triple etc..

One caution: this soup will not freeze well. Plan to eat what you make within a day or so.

Enjoy!  E. <><

Mixed Citrus and Beet Salad (Ensalada Navidad)

I love citrus season so much.  We scarf down big bags of grapefruits, Cara Cara and Heirloom Navel oranges (yay Trader Joes!) and I definitely break into my happy dance right in the produce aisle (can’t stop won’t stop!) when I spy the first Meyer Lemons of the season.  Swoon!  I also love me some beets, so I have always been attracted to the gorgeous Mexican Christmas salad, Ensalada Navidad.

There are numerous versions of this salad with all kinds of different formats and add ins, but a great many feature mixed citrus fruits and beets.  I needed to bring something to small group and I had everything I needed on hand, so I whipped up a platter of healthy, gorgeous, seasonal goodness to share.

Here’s what you need:

  • 5 oranges – all one kind or a mix of Heirloom Navel, Cara Cara, Blood, etc.
  • 1 lb of cooked beets (I used the kind you get in the produce aisle that are already cooked and vacuum packed. You can roast your own if you like, but that is 1000% more work than I think it’s worth here, but you do you)
  • 1 Meyer Lemon
  • 1/2 cup toasted, shelled pumpkin seeds (Pepitas)
  • 2-3 Tbsp honey, to taste
  • juice and zest of 1 lime
  • 1/2 cup neutral vegetable oil such as grapeseed
  • kosher salt to taste

Here’s what to do:

Zest one of the oranges and put the zest in a small mixing bowl where you will build the dressing.  Carefully cut the rinds off all the oranges.  You do NOT need to cut the rind off the Meyer Lemon.

Sorry, I couldn’t resist another angle – is there anything more beautiful and cheery than citrus fruit??? Nope!

Okay, now don’t toss those rinds into the compost heap just yet.  You are going to give each one a quick squeeze over your dressing bowl to catch all that juice for your dressing. Hopefully you will end up somewhere in the neighborhood of 3 Tbsp of orange juice.

Slice the oranges and beets into 1/4″ thick slices, and the Meyer Lemon into paper thin slices.  The oranges & beets will be slicker than wet soap, so make sure your knife is super-sharp and you take your time!

Again, just so gorgeous, no?  It’s moments like this that I am once again grateful that God gives us such an amazing variety of foods to enjoy! If you noticed the beets didn’t make it to the photo shoot, I had them segregated in a small bowl so they wouldn’t bleed all over the other fruits or me!

Arrange the beets and citrus in rows on your platter – be creative and do it how it looks best to you.  I thought a blue platter would look nice with the orange & red fruits, but yeah, not so much!  I guess that’s why I mostly use white serving pieces…

Yep, a neutral serving platter was the way to go, but I was not about to embark on a do-over.  Why that didn’t occur to me on row 1 is I believe what psychologists call “Cognitive Tunneling”. ; )

You should already have the zest of one orange and about 3 Tbsp (give or take) orange juice in your dressing bowl.  To that add the lime juice and zest, the honey, oil and about 1/4 tsp kosher salt.  Whisk together and taste.

Add more honey or salt if you like, or if you feel like the dressing should be a bit more tart, add a splash of white wine or rice vinegar (something with a neutral taste).

Drizzle the dressing all over the salad (you don’t have to use it all – see below for what to do with any extra) and top with the pepitas.  Once you dress the salad, eat it fairly soon.

To make it ahead, you can arrange the fruits and chill them for a few hours at most.  If you store it too long the fruit will just start losing juice and wilt on you.  A decidedly un-Feliz Navidad.

Any leftover dressing is amazing tossed with crisp salad greens such as Iceberg or Romaine, supremed orange sections and diced avocado.  That was my glorious lunch the next day!

 

Snowscapes and Fun with Waterlogue App

We got a rare proper snowfall today (six inches!) and it was magical.

The man and I went for a couple of walks to bask in the beauty and that wonderful silence when all you can hear is the snow falling.  And our neighbor’s adorable toddler squealing with delight.  That was pretty wonderful too.

Of course I couldn’t resist bringing my camera and firing up Waterlogue.  Teaser: I will be doing a post later to show some fun things you can do with your Waterlogue creations!

Enjoy…

The towering Magnolia in our front yard

 

Our neighbor’s Pines and Maples.  This is my favorite of the Waterlogues

 

Now these are some flocked trees.  I gotta get one of those for Christmas next year… And if that’s tacky, I don’t want to know!

 

Our beautiful old Dogwood.  The Waterlogue reminds me of a Jackson Pollack I saw in NYC

 

 

This pretty lady let me get quite a few snaps

 

Here are 3 Waterlogues of this pic to demonstrate the variety of looks you can achieve with this app.  I LOVE it!

 

Our neighbor has the most gorgeous Crepe Myrtles.  I try not to envy…

Our street.  I think we have a Christmas card or craft here. I don’t know where all those faint purples came from, but they are everything!

 

The Villa

Our front yard

 

This is a holly we call Cousin It.  For years only his lower branches grew and grew along the ground, and if we didn’t prune him constantly, he looked like Cousin It.  This Waterlogue is another one that needs to be turned into a Christmas card.

 

I got the first 3″ off in the afternoon, he got the last 3.  My shoulders are not amused.

 

Why You Should Never Shop Online Without Honey

A few weeks ago one of my fave home decor bloggers posted a video about how she uses the shopping app/browser extension, Honey.  I do a huge % of my shopping online so quick like a bunny I signed up (free) and added the extension to my Chrome browser.  Cha-ching!  This thing rocks!

What does Honey do?

Basically as you are shopping online, you can click on the Honey button on your browser and Honey will search for any coupon codes, deals, better values, etc.  On Amazon, Honey is integrated into the product page so the info it generates is right there for you to see.

For example, if you are on Amazon, it will tell you if you are looking at the best deal for that item.  It will also show you if and how the price has fluctuated in the last 60 days or so.  If you don’t need something right away, you can “Droplist” the item, set a target price and Honey will e-mail you if your item hits that price. You guys know that Amazon is like the stock market, with the prices zinging up and down daily, right?

If you are shopping online at a store like Target, you can click on the Honey extension button and it will search for Target online coupon codes for you and display them in a sidebar.  I’m sure you’ve tried online coupon code search sites before (I sure have) and found them to be useless.  The codes RARELY work, and it’s just a huge waste of time. Well, I’ve had amazing luck with the codes I’ve found using Honey, and it takes you zero time for any codes to helpfully pop right up – you don’t need to go to another site, do a search, blah blah blah.

Of course, you can sign up to be inundated with “sales of the day” spams from every vendor you shop with so you can research and keep track of all the coupon codes & sales yourself.  If you have that much time on your hands, you need to rethink how you spend your days.  I have also tried other services that let you know when prices on items drop, but they were so slow – by the time they emailed me, that price was days old and long gone, and they were so complicated to set up!  Honey is quick and easy to use.  Gaah, I love it!

Here’s how I’ve used Honey in the past week and my results:

  • Droplist Feature: Last week I was looking to buy a cast iron pan on Amazon.  It was selling for $25, but Honey showed me that the price frequently dipped to $19 for one day flash sales.  Rather than me having to remember to check Amazon every day for the price of the pan, I Droplisted it.  Honey e-mailed me Saturday that the price had dropped, and boom – pan ordered for $19.
  • Best Deal Feature:  A few days before that I was looking to buy some reusable silicone quart freezer bags.  I did my usual Amazon search and picked what came up as the best price (sorting price from lowest to highest).  Now, I’m sure you know that when you look at an item on Amazon you can click the link that shows you all the sellers of that item, both new and used, so you can find the best price.  The seller I was at showed the best price.  I checked Honey, and it found me another seller on Amazon, with Prime shipping, that sold the same bags for $3 less, which was an 18% savings.  Go figure.
  • Coupon Code Feature:  Today I sat down to renew all my magazine subscriptions, which I try to get through MagazineStore.com (they always have great deals – you just have to remember to turn off auto-renew and manually renew your subscriptions each year to keep getting those super low rates).  Okay, so I was ordering 5 magazines, and Honey found me online coupon codes that gave me 50% off each one of them, for a savings of $22.50! [Yeah, you read that right – I got a year of Martha Stewart Living, Allrecipes, Good Housekeeping, Cook’s Country and Cook’s Illustrated for $22.50 total – plus a bonus year of Rachael Ray Everyday for $3! 6 mags for $25.50 – that’s why I love that site!!!]

So this week alone this app has saved me $31.50 on stuff I would have happily paid full price for because I had no way to know there were coupon codes/flash sales out there.

  1. $6 on cast iron pan
  2. $3 on silicone bags
  3. $22.50 on magazine subscriptions (actually I saved $37.50 because Cooks Illustrated had sent me a renewal bill for $40 for the year, but I paid $25 thru Magazine store, minus the 50% off from using Honey)

Honey probably does other things that you can find out about if you check out their site, which I highly recommend you do!

Blessings, E <><

***I did not receive any compensation for recommending these products or services***

 

Christmas Cake Cookie Bon Bons

Whoa, I know that title is a mouthful, but these yummy Christmas confections are a magical blend of part fruit cake (don’t think the gross kind full of soggy nuts and chemical laden frankenfruits), part cookie and part candy-like bon bon.  They are chock full of real dried fruits and citrus rinds, crunchy walnuts, and oh yeah, Bourbon and dry Sherry!  They are definitely for the grown-ups, and utterly perfect with a cup of hot tea, a glass of sherry or if you’re really OG Christmas, Russian Tea.

Here is what you need and how to make them:

For the Cookies –

  • 3 cups total of chopped, mixed, dried fruits such as raisins, craisins, sultanas, dates, dried pineapple, dried cherries, candied orange & lemon rinds, etc.
  • 4 tablespoons Bourbon*
  • 4 tablespoons dry Sherry*
  • *(you can substitute Amaretto for the Sherry or apple cider for all the liquor)
  • ½ cup chopped walnuts
  • 1 cup all purpose flour, divided
  • ½ tsp. baking powder
  • ¼ tsp. salt
  • ½ teaspoon cinnamon
  • ½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
  • ½ cup sugar
  • 4 Tbsp. butter, softened
  • 1 egg
  • 1 1/2″ paper candy cups (about 48 to 54 of them)

For the Glaze & Decoration

  • ½ cup powdered sugar
  • ½ tsp Nielsen Massey vanilla bean paste (or regular vanilla extract)
  • 4 teaspoons Bourbon
  • pinch of salt
  • thinly sliced candied orange or lemon peel

In a medium glass bowl, toss mixed fruits and peels with the Bourbon and Sherry.

I used equal parts raisins, sultanas, craisins, dried cherries, dried pineapple, candied orange rinds and candied lemon rinds.  Cover with plastic wrap and allow to “marinate” until almost all of the liquor is absorbed, stirring every couple of hours. This should take about 8 hours or you can do this overnite. When the fruit is ready, you will have a lovely plump, glossy mix that looks like this (I had already folded in the walnuts before I snapped the pic):

Speaking of candied citrus peels-

you want good quality ones that are just citrus rinds and sugar – not the dyed, preservative-filled stuff that is sold for “fruitcakes”.  I get mine at a Middle Eastern market, but many high quality grocers carry them.

Preheat oven to 325°F. Arrange 48 to 54 1.5” paper candy cups on a rimmed baking sheet.

Stir walnuts into fruit mixture. Sprinkle ½ cup of the flour into fruit mixture, and stir to coat evenly.

To make the cookie/cake batter:

In the bowl of a stand mixer, using the paddle attachment, cream butter and sugar. Add egg and beat to incorporate thoroughly. Add remaining ½ cup flour, baking powder, salt, and spices and mix on low till combined. Add fruit mixture and beat on low till combined – stopping to scrape bowl to be sure batter is evenly distributed around the fruit, nuts and peels (there will be more fruit mixture than batter so this is important).

Using a #100 disher or a teaspoon, portion a level scoop of dough into baking cups.

Press disher into cup so dough touches paper before squeezing to release the dough ball.

The dough won’t spread, so you can place the cups right next to each other in the pan.

Bake cookies, rotating sheets at halfway point, until just lightly brown, about 23 minutes. Cool.

Dice a few strips of candied orange or lemon peel to garnish the cookies

Whisk glaze ingredients together to make a thick glaze (too thick to drizzle, but thin enough to spread a bit).

Spoon glaze onto cookies; garnish with peel.

These cookies keep well, so they can be made ahead and kept at room temp in an airtight container.  In fact, they just get yummier as they “ripen”.  Enjoy!

Easy, Festive Dessert for a Crowd

Hey, y’all, since it’s Christmas time and you may be looking for an easy, festive, make-ahead dessert to feed a crowd, I thought I’d share an updated version of the most popular recipe on my blog –

Chocolate Cream Trifle.

This simple Trifle recipe has been viewed over 750 times! It’s elegant enough to be the only dessert you serve, but simple enough to make for a buffet.

Click through to the post for the recipe and all the deets…

PS – If you’re not feeding a crowd, you can easily halve the recipe and make it in a smaller dish!

Enjoy!

-Elizabeth <><

Spritz Cookies 101 – Fast, Easy, Gift-Worthy and Delicious

Are you looking for a Christmas cookie that looks festive, tastes great, ships well, stays fresh and yummy for ages and oh, yeah, is quick and inexpensive to make a LOT of?  Would you like to crank out 10-12 dozen gift-worthy treats in less time than it takes to do a load of laundry? They say you can’t have it all, but with Spritz Cookies, you really can.

Spritz are my #1 favorite Christmas cookie, the only one I make every year.  If you avoid making Spritz because you think they are time consuming, fussy, and require an expensive gadget or hard-to-master techniques, let me tell ya, nope, nope, nope and more nope!  You can do this!  If you have failed at these in the past, I’m here to tell you all you need to make delicious, adorable Spritz cookies is a great recipe, the right (inexpensive) tool and a few tips and tricks.  And some fun practice.  I’ll walk you through everything you need to know to crank these out like a pro.

First, a great recipe.

I have been making Spritz as long as I can remember, and I’ve tried and tinkered with a LOT of recipes (my man is a very willing Spritz Cookie test subject).  This recipe is our favorite.  The dough comes together in minutes, doesn’t need to be chilled, is easy to work with and makes cookies with nice, distinct edges (Spritz cookies that puff or spread = Spritz Cookie Fail). Oh, and they are sooo buttery ‘licious you may need to make two batches just to have any left to give away (no comment). This recipe makes 10-12 dozen.

  • 2 cups (4 sticks) butter, room temp (don’t use unsalted)
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 1 tsp almond extract (totally optional)*
  • 1/2 cup cornstarch (the magic ingredient for crisp Spritz)
  • 3 1/2 cups all purpose flour

In a large mixer, cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy.  Add egg and vanilla (and almond extract if using) and beat until thoroughly combined.  Scrape down bowl sides to make sure everything is incorporated.  On low, beat in the cornstarch.  When the cornstarch is completely incorporated, add the flour and mix on low till just combined – do not overmix.  Scrape down the bowl to make sure you don’t have any dry pockets.

The dough should be fairly stiff (stiffer than chocolate chip cookie dough, but not as dry as pie crust) and look like this:

You’re now ready to press, and that took 10 minutes tops.  Totally easy, yes or yes?

A word about tinting.  If you want to divide the dough and tint it, knock yourself out.  I find that fussy and I don’t like the way it looks with a lightly browned edge.  Just my personal preference, so you do you.

Second, you need the right tool.

Here’s where the wheels can really come off.  If you have a cookie press that looks like this, RUN!

This type of press (which a plunger you push by hand) is great for piping whipped cream or frosting, or filling manicotti.  It is a NIGHTMARE for trying to make cookies.

What you need is a gadget that looks like this:

The “right” type of cookie press has a trigger mechanism. See the little “teeth” on the metal plunger bar up top?  Each time you squeeze the trigger, those little teeth engage and plunge out exactly one perfect spritz cookie’s worth of dough.  Most presses will come with several die for different shapes, and bonus points if yours also comes with a set of nozzles for filling canapes and deviled eggs – hey this ain’t no “unitasker”!  Don’t spend a lot here.  Mine cost $15 and I believe I’ve had it longer than I’ve been married, which will be 27 years this Christmas!

Third, you need some tried and true tips and tricks to speed things along

Preheat your oven to 350 and line several heavy gauge cookie sheets with silpats or parchment paper (silpats are easier to work with – the edges don’t curl up on you).

The press might not come with instructions, so here is how to use one:

Take it apart and release the plunger all the way back

Place your chosen die inside the cap and screw onto the barrel

Grab a blob of dough roughly the same size as the barrel of your cookie press and roll it on the counter into a log a bit smaller in diameter.

Plop the dough in the barrel.  Tap it down on the counter and smush out (so technical) any air pockets with your fingers.  Be sure to leave about 1″ of space at the top to insert the plunger

Insert the plunger and screw the press shut.  Yes, a bunch of dough is going to squish out the end.  If it doesn’t, squeeze the trigger till some does.  Is this taking anyone back to their Play Doh days?

Scrape off the squished out dough, toss it back in the bowl, and you are good to go.  Your loaded weapon should look like this:

Place the press right into the corner of your pan, and squeeze the trigger two times – do this for the first, and ONLY the first, cookie.  This primes the pump.  *Note: you need to do this priming step each time your refill your press*

You’ll get a jumbo cookie which you can either scrape off and toss back in the bowl or leave as a treat for the cook (my vote).

For each subsequent cookie, place the press as close to the last cookie as you can, always making sure the entire circumference of the press is resting on the cookie sheet.  Squeeze the trigger once and quickly lift off.  The cookies will not spread, so the more you can get on a sheet, the fewer batches you will have to bake off.

If you are right handed, it’s easiest to begin in the top left corner and work your way down and then across the sheet to the right, and vice versa if you are a leftie.  Once you get the hang of it, you can zip out a tray in about a minute.  That takes a bit of practice, so be patient with yourself and enjoy the zen of learning!

If you have trouble getting your cookies to “stick”  (a) your dough may be a bit too warm (if your kitchen is warm and humid) so chill it for 20 mins max (you don’t want it hard or you won’t be able to get it thru the press). Or (b) you may have a bit of butter, etc. on your silpats from your last batch of cookies.  They have to be meticulously clean or your Spritz will NOT stick and you will go nuts trying.

Don’t worry about those little “peaks” of dough on each cookie.  They help contain the sugar sprinkles, and you will pat them out a bit after decorating.

You can top the Spritz with any number of things: colored sugars, sprinkles, chocolate jimmies, nonpareils, edible glitter, etc.  Or you can leave them plain and drizzle or dip in chocolate.

After you put on your sugar, sprinkles, etc., verrrrry lightly pat each cookie to get the sugar to adhere and flatten those peaks a tiny bit.  Do NOT flatten the cookies!  This year I bought some edible glitter and I am loving the look (center row)

Bake at 350 for 10-12 minutes, or until cookies are ever so slightly browned on the edges.  You can go to lightly browned edges if you like ’em extra crispy.

Okay, get those babies off the sheets right away.  

Here’s the only fussy step – you will have to wash the silpats very well between batches (or use a new sheet of parchment) so that your cookies will stick to the sheets and you won’t have color contamination from the last batch.  I also run cold water over the pans to cool them.

You can change die between batches or mid batch if you want to try a lot of shapes.  Be aware that the more complicated the die pattern, the harder it is to press it nicely.  In the top pic of my set, the 8-petaled flower is a pain in the patuckus, so I rarely use it.

At the end, you will be left with one blob of dough. I always shape it into a monster Spritz topped with peppermint crunch for myself. 

I also do a dozen or so regular spritz topped with peppermint crunch (smashed candy canes you can buy in a jar). 

The peppermint Spritz are just for us, because while DELICIOUS, the peppermints melt and look terrible!

I am, however, calling the edible glitter a big success because it looks great and doesn’t taste like anything but sugar (I was a little worried it would taste weird).

A word about storage: Store these cookies in an airtight container all by themselves. Because they contain so much butter, they easily pick up off flavors. They freeze beautifully but again you need to wrap them up tightly to protect them from picking up freezer flavors.

I hope I have encouraged you to give Spritz a try this Christmas!  Let me know how they come out!

10 Ways to Make (and Keep) the Holidays Happy

A little Christmas Cheer in the kitchen

The Holidays (and by that I mean Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years) really are “the most wonderful time of the year”.  But more often than not they are a festival of stress, anxiety, debt, busyness and self-inflicted drama.

I understand why the Holidays can be lonely times, or sad when someone close has passed away or there has been some kind of family division.  There’s no quick fix for family drama or shortcuts to work through grief.  But the rest of that stuff is firmly in your control regardless of your circumstances.

Would you love to experience the holidays as a time of kindness, gratitude, reflecting on your spiritual blessings, expressing love and appreciation to the people you are blessed to have in your life, and of course the enjoying the FOOD, the fun decor and the tunes?  The holidays used to bring on so dang much stress and sometimes even anger for me.  But I’ve set some boundaries and created habits and traditions that help me genuinely enjoy this time of year.  And you can too!

Here are ten tips for adding peace, joy and fun to your Holidays while keeping the Grinches, Scrooges and Abominable Snow Bumbles at bay….

One – Crank the tunes early and often

I love love love Christmas music of all kinds and have a huge collection of CDs.  Last year I discovered the wonderland that is Pandora Christmas themed stations!  I have the best Christmas dance parties in my kitchen salsa-ing to all the stations that start with “Navidad”.  I’m not a fan of Country music, but the Classic Country Christmas channel is a HOOT!  Chill Holiday, Christmas Choral Classics, Christmas Traditional, Classical Christmas, Holiday Instrumentals, Jazz Holidays and Peaceful Holidays are all great.  Major bonus points if you sing along!

And as much as I love the fun secular Christmas music (is that an oxymoron?) I do have several playlists of Christian, or “traditional Choral” Christmas music to keep in mind that this is a joyous, miraculous, wonderful time because God came as baby in a manger and gave Himself to us!

Two – Bake Something “Traditional”

Foods – smells and tastes – are very powerful memory triggers.  When my mum died, one of the things I chose to keep were her handwritten recipe cards for our family’s traditional Christmas cookies.  I actually don’t do a super lot of baking for Christmas anymore so the old recipes don’t get made every year.  But when I do spend a day making my Grammy’s cut out butter cookies, the smell just says CHRISTMAS and makes my heart happy!  And that first delicious nibble reminds me of sneaking into the cookie tin and looking for (a) a Christmas tree shaped one (duh, they were the biggest!) and (b) an extra thick one!  I’m sure you have one old recipe you haven’t made in years that would bring back happy memories.  And lucky you if you have an older person in your life who would love to make it with you or show you how to make your family’s special treat that you never learned to make.

Three – Do Something Kind for a Stranger

One of the highlights of the Holidays for me is putting together my Operation Christmas Child shoeboxes.  Every year I do boxes for 10-14 year old boys.  A few years ago a friend who volunteers with Samaritan’s Purse told me that the older boys are underserved.  They often get handed a box intended for a little boy (or even girl) because most people like to buy for the littles and there just aren’t enough boxes for the older kids.  I encourage you to not only participate in this amazing outreach, but do a box for the older kids!  If that’s not your cuppa, there are lots of opportunities to give to others this time of year, and doing something kind is a major joy booster and perspective changer.

Four – Start a New Tradition

Holiday traditions are wonderful until they’re not.  Things change – the kids grow up, you move, your financial circumstances change, you aren’t so mobile anymore.  It’s hard when a beloved Christmas tradition ends.  But hey, that just means there’s now space in your life for something new!  A couple years ago the man and I started a new Thanksgiving tradition that we could not enjoy more.  Instead of participating in the scary drama of Black Friday, we take a relaxing drive up north of Winston Salem where we stop at a Christmas shop and pick out our new Old World Christmas ornaments for the year.  Then we head to Pilot Mtn State Park for a picnic lunch and a couple hours of hiking, after which we plunk ourselves on the edge of the mtn and share a big slab of Chocolate Bourbon Pecan pie.  On the way home we hit a local BBQ joint or brew pub.  Best. day. ever. and it starts the whole Christmas season off on a wonderfully relaxed, connected-to-each-other vibe.  There is nothing on sale anywhere that I want more than savoring this view while sharing a slab of pie with my sweet man!

Five – Say “No” to Something You Don’t Really Want to Do

Wake up your inner toddler and just say NO!  Hate traveling over the holidays?  Don’t!  Dread your spouse’s holiday office bash more than a root canal?  Pass it up.  Tired of participating in a budget busting “I have to spend $100 each on 20 relatives” gift grab?  Float the idea of scaling it back – I’ll bet you aren’t alone!  It’ll be weird at first, but that weird feeling is a little something called peace.  Now, I’m not talking about digging your heels into your comfort zone and never doing anything “hard” or sucking it up when you genuinely have to (see that office holiday bash).  I’m talking about something that is casting a pall of dread over your life and your enjoyment of the holidays that really could be eliminated by having one big boy or girl conversation and letting it go.

Bonus tip:  Have you been invited to something you don’t want to attend but you don’t have a good “excuse”?  News flash – the fact you don’t want to attend is all the “excuse” you need.  Simply rsvp el pronto with a sweet “Thank you so much for including us on the invite list!  (hey, it IS nice to be invited!) Unfortunately we won’t be able to attend.  Thanks again for thinking of us and I hope your (blank) is a great success!”

Six – Take a Drive to See Some Lights

At least once a season I fill a few travel mugs with peppermint hot cocoa and the man and I hit the road for some Christmas cheer. For 2 servings of the yummiest cocoa ever: heat 2 cups whole milk to simmering; add Ghiradelli bittersweet chocolate chips to taste (about 1/3 cup) a teeny-tiny pinch of salt (yes, to balance the sweet) & whisk till the chips melt.  Whisk in ONE drop of peppermint oil (2 if you have a cold and need to blast your sinuses out).  Jump in your car, put on some Christmas tunes and drive around your area.  After a few years we’ve learned which neighborhoods and specific homes always do a bang up job.  So fun and FREE!  Bonus points if you pack a few friends in the car to sing carols and ooh-and-ah together.  Repeat as needed.

Seven – Cut Yourself (and Everyone Else) Some Slack

Have a seat, because Auntie Elizabeth is gonna tell you some “truth in love”.  Your unreasonable expectations need to go on a Christmas vacation and never come back.  Seriously.  If you are trying to force your home and family into living out a Hallmark Christmas movie, you are in for some inevitable disappointment.  Your home & decorations don’t look like the ones in Martha Stewart Living or your favorite decor blogs?  Well, neither does anyone else’s, so get over it!  Make a list of 10 cookies you want to bake, then bake THREE.  Pick out 10 activities/parties you’d like to attend, and go to FIVE.  Just scale “it” back and really savor the few things you choose – and your free time.  You get the idea.

Eight – Break out the Christmas movies, shows & books

Christmas would not be Christmas for us without Charlie Brown, Frosty, Rudolph, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Tis the Season to be Smurfy, T’was the Night Before Christmas, The Year Without a Santa Claus (Snow Miser!), Elf & The Grinch (both hilarious!), Holiday Inn, Christmas Carol (the one with George C Scott – I cry EVERY time at the end), Polar Express (okay I’ll give you that the hobo is scary-creepy) and my numero uno, I’ve-watched-it-every-Christmas-Eve-of-my-life (!) favorite:  White Christmas (and every year I yell at the tv, “for *@#&^ sake Betty, just tell Bob why you’re mad at him!!!”).

This year I bought a bunch of children’s Christmas books (and even a Hannukah story!) to keep on the coffee table.  I’ve really enjoyed reading and savoring the illustrations to Charlie Brown, the Grinch, etc.

One Warning:  last year I overheard two ladies talking about how much they liked “Nestor the Christmas Donkey”.  I’d never seen it but I had it in one of my Christmas Special DVD collections.  Well, DO NOT WATCH THIS SHOW!  Unless of course you like being punched in the gut with soul crushing sadness by a Christmas show!  Gahhhh!

Nine – Go to a Local Christmas Parade, Pageant, Musical, etc.

It’s the sweet, simple things enjoyed with friends and loved ones that make the Holidays special.  Last year we were in Florida for part of Dec and got to see the Christmas Golf Cart Parade my sister’s neighborhood puts on.  People deck out their golf carts with Christmas decor and tour around the development.  Unfortunately many of them are also hucking hard candies at you, so you gotta be ready to duck. But we LOVED it!  I am so bummed we won’t be there for that this year! Our church does a service of Bible readings and carols where people in our church form a “once a year” orchestra.  Is it the Philharmonic? No.  Is it GREAT?  Yes!  Go to a Christmas play or concert, or a Church Cantata.  Everything now is so bloody “extra” we’ve forgotten how to enjoy the simple pleasure of our friends and neighbors sharing their gifts and talents with us.

Ten – Have Friends and Neighbors Over for an Impromptu Cocktail or Dessert “Potluck”

Do you want to have some peeps over but faint at the idea of orchestrating a full on dinner or cocktail party at this time of year?  Here’s a great way to do it easy-peasy that works all year.  We are blessed to currently live in a neighborhood where we enjoy getting together for a few drinks and a chat.  When the mood hits I send out an e-mail inviting everyone over either that day or the next (remember, this is supposed to be low-key and impromptu, so no planning ahead!).  I make an app or two and provide a batch of cocktails or some wine.  Everyone else brings more appetizers and the guys are always good for a cooler of beers.  In the summer we sit out on the porch and when it’s cooler we’ve sat around the fire table sipping hot cider spiked with Bourbon.  Your house is never going to look prettier than it does decked out for Christmas, so what a great time to invite a few folks over for a super low-key soiree.  Since most people do lots of baking (or at least a lot of buying!) for the holidays you could easily put together a quick appetizer and Christmas sweets potluck and enjoy a relaxed evening with people you want to fellowship with.

Eleven – Bonus Tip: Don’t Even Think About Going Into Debt for Christmas.

Do not do this!  The Bible is not kidding when it says “better a little with fear of the LORD than a great fortune with anxiety” Prov 15:6.  Make peace with and be thankful for what you and your family can afford (see #7 above) and give your loved ones the precious gift of honesty, peace of mind and a good life lesson in financial stewardship.  There are a million and one things to do and give for Christmas that cost nothing or very little.  Will your 12 yr old melt down when she doesn’t get the iPhone X?  Well she needs to have a seat and get woke.  Going into debt over Christmas is a bullet train to Miserytown, population: you.

I hope I’ve given you a few ideas to help keep this season a time of “great joy that will be for all the people” (Luke 2:11)  Please feel free to share in the comments ways you keep things joyful in your home!

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