Think outside the chocolate box

The holidays provide a good excuse to bake and eat cookies. Not the traditional chocolate chip or peanut butter cookies that most of us eat during the rest of the year, but those special recipes that have everyone going back for a second taste.

Hosting a cookie exchange is a great way to expose your friends to a wider variety of cookie recipes this holiday season. But before sending out invitations and asking your friends to make their favorite cookie recipe, consider thinking outside the chocolate box for your party this year.

There are tons of ways to make your cookie exchange party unique. Start planning your party right away using a couple of these ideas.

* Make it a themed cookie exchange. Theme parties are fun at any time of year, but take it one step further with your cookie exchange. Invite your guests to follow the theme with the recipes they choose to make. For example, consider hosting a black and white cookie party, explaining to attendees that the cookies must have a black or white element. Coconut, white or dark chocolate candies, nuts and sugar for icing are just several ingredients that fit the bill, and you can find dozens of recipes featuring these items. Or make it a chocolate party, where all of the recipes have a chocolate ingredient in them. Many cookie recipes include nuts, so a nut theme would also be a great idea. In addition to the recipes featuring the theme, also decorate the party room to match. In need of a recipe? The following white chocolate crunch recipe is great for all three themed parties:

 

Hawaiian Host Whole Macadamia White Chocolate Crunch

Ingredients:

1 box, 7 ounces, 18 pieces Hawaiian Host Whole Macadamia White Chocolates
1 cup Rice Krispies
1 cup mini marshmallows
1/4 cup creamy peanut butter

Directions:

Melt chocolate in a microwave oven in 4 quart casserole at 70 percent power for 3 – 4 minutes, stirring periodically, until melted. Stir in peanut butter. Add corn cereal and marshmallows; stir. Pour into buttered 8-by-8 inch square pan or dish. When firm, cut into squares.

* Up the game on the party favors. The purpose of a cookie exchange is to leave the party with a variety of holiday cookies, but you and your guests can have a lot more fun. Ways to think outside the chocolate box include holding a wine pairing with the cookies. Red wine and chocolate go well together, and your guests can determine which pairing works best for their holiday tables. Or indulge by serving some chocolate martinis alongside the cookies. If your group is into games, make up fun names for the cookie recipes everyone brought, or make a unique recipe just for the party, and have guests guess the ingredients in the mystery cookie.

* Introduce unexpected ingredients into the cookie recipes. One of the holiday season’s most popular confections is Hawaiian Host chocolate-covered macadamia nuts that tempt frequent snacking all season long. But chopping up these chocolate-covered nuts and putting them into a cookie recipe will introduce a new surprise to all your guests. Try them in the following butter cookie recipe:

18875310

Hawaiian Host Milk Chocolate AlohaMac Butter Cookies

Ingredients:

14 pieces Hawaiian Host Milk Chocolate AlohaMacs, chop into pieces
1/2 cup butter, unsalted
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup light brown sugar, granulated
1 large egg
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/4 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda

Directions:

Preheat oven to 350 F. Mix butter and sugars in large bowl until light and fluffy. Add egg and beat, then add vanilla extract. Mix flour, salt and soda, and add gradually to butter mixture. Fold in chocolate pieces. Drop rounded spoonfuls onto greased cookie sheets. Bake 8 – 10 minutes in the preheated oven, until light brown. Allow cookies to cool on baking sheet for 5 minutes. Then place on a wire rack to cool completely.

Hosting a cookie exchange is a lot of fun, and when you think outside the chocolate box, you can take the fun to a whole new level. So start planning your party, find some unique cookie recipes and get started with your holiday baking. For more recipes or to order chocolate-covered macadamia nuts online visit www.hawaiianhost.com.

 

 

Holiday entertainment survival guide

The countdown to this year’s holiday season has begun. Department stores have decked the halls. Families are scheduling trips to visit far-away loved ones. And hosts everywhere are stressing about entertaining family and friends during this frantic season of peace and good will.

To ease stress, the Kansas City Steak Company has put together a holiday entertainment guide to help you weather the storm and come out with host-of-the-year honors. Here are a few tips.

Stock the freezer and pantry with can’t miss meals that delight every time

Every host has some go-to recipes that are crowd pleasers. Be sure to stock your freezer with some family favorites leading into the holiday season. Whether you’re planning a glorious Christmas Eve feast or an impromptu holiday party, you’ll have everything you need to delight your guests.

A succulent prime rib roast is always a great go-to meal. It’s easy to prepare, doesn’t require a lot of fuss and never fails to impress even the pickiest eater. A flavorful beef tenderloin roast is another easy fan favorite. You can also check out a few other special holiday meals from companies like the Kansas City Steak Company to stock your pantry with foods your family and friends will love.

Don’t forget to add in a few appetizers, side dishes and a dessert or two to your freezer stash. When time is limited, stocking the freezer with time-saving, delicious go-to items is the way to go.

Add a few special items to make your holiday table sparkle

From colorful holiday runners and napkins, to large platters and serving bowls, it’s a great idea to pull out your holiday items and place them in an easy-to-reach location during the holiday season. Candles add a special ambiance to holiday parties, so keep a few of your favorite scented votives and pillars on hand and you’ll have a special glow.

And don’t forget to buy a few non-perishable foods that add elegance to any holiday spread: olives, crackers, holiday cookies, spiced nuts – whatever your family and friends enjoy, stock up and they’ll be ready whenever you need them.

Consider a potluck meal this year

Potluck dinners can take a lot of stress off your plate and are a great way to create memorable meals anytime – especially during the holidays. Usually the host takes care of the meal’s entree. Guests could bring their favorite salads, breads, desserts or whatever you need to round out the meal. It’s a great way to spread out costs, reduce stress and entertain in style.

Prepping the holiday bar

Impromptu and planned holiday gatherings often mean you’ll want to offer a variety of beverages. Stocking your bar with a few bottles of your favorite wine, beer, vodka, whiskey and some mixers means you don’t have to make a last-minute trip to the store when you’d rather be visiting with friends.

Welcome guests with festive holiday music

Few things say, “Happy Holidays,” like the tunes that define the season. Tune into one of the stations in your area that plays holiday music 24/7 from Thanksgiving through Christmas. Or download some favorites onto your iPod and let the music waft throughout your home.

Stow away a few extra gifts for unexpected guests

It happens every year. Someone stops by to deliver an unexpected holiday gift and you haven’t included that person on your gift list. Whether it’s a box of special chocolates, scented candles or even a box of succulent steaks, you’ll be prepared for any occasion by having extra gifts on-hand.

Making your home “guest-ready”

A clean home is a happy home – and a reflection on you. Take a few moments to walk through your home before guests arrive. Check the bathrooms to make sure they’re well-stocked. Add a few extra hangers to your closet. Remove excess clutter. Taking a few minutes before guests arrive to tidy up will mean that much less you’ll have to clean after the party.

Take time to savor the special moments and memories

There is no perfect holiday gathering, so remember to laugh and love and move on. Advanced planning will help you survive some of the usual holiday entertaining stresses, but learning to let the little things go can go a long way to helping you see that this time together is precious.

DIY: Holiday Decorating

As the holidays roll around, it’s natural to want to spread good tidings and cheer with festive decorations like wreaths, candy canes and Santa Claus figurines. But this year, instead of digging out the same old holiday decorations, why not create some new looks that will last the entire winter season, even after you put away the gift wrap and ornaments?

Stimulate the senses

Nothing says winter like the fresh smell of pine and the soft, warm glow of candle light. Repurpose simple glass bottles into an outdoorsy candlescape with Krylon Natural Stone Textured Finish spray paint. Available in eight colors, like Olivine, it goes on easy and gives you the natural beauty of stone and an elegant, professional-looking appearance. Once dry, wrap artificial garland with pinecones around the bottle’s neck or let the garland cascade down the bottle. Place pine tree-scented white taper candles in the bottle openings, light and enjoy for a fresh look and smell that will stimulate your senses well into 2014.

Color works wonders

Another easy way to excite the senses during a drab, gray winter is with pops of color. For a decorative display that lasts all season, avoid the red and green color combination associated with Christmas and branch out with more contemporary choices like teals, blues, purples and pinks. Metallics like silver and gold are also a great way to glitz up the season without looking like the North Pole in overdrive. Try Krylon’s ColorMaster Metallic in Gold to spice up old ornaments, vases, frames, centerpieces and more in no time at all. Group spray-painted ornaments or pine cones in a hurricane vase or glass bowl and display on the mantel for added ambiance to any living room.

Deck the halls

Looking for a way to display the abundance of holiday cards from friends and family? Repurpose an old window shutter to create a unique display. Start by spray painting it with a festive shade, such as green or burgundy, which adds a touch of holiday spirit. Once dry, hang the shutter in the kitchen or entryway and place holiday cards in the slats of the shutter for a creative way to stay organized. Once the holidays have passed, you can still use the shutter to display birthday cards, thank you notes, party invitations and more all year long.

Outdoor decor

The inside of the home isn’t the only space you can be creative. Make a lasting statement before houseguests even step inside your home by focusing decorative attention to the outside. Line walkways and driveways with lights or faux miniature pine trees, and place white flameless candlesticks on each windowsill to add a simple touch of holiday spirit without going overboard. Prop a vintage snow sled outside the front door to welcome guests.

So, this year instead of the same decorations, consider some fun and easy ways to re-beautify them into pieces that you’ll be proud to display throughout the winter season. For more product or project ideas, visit www.krylon.com.

Healthy, reduced-guilt holiday desserts

The holidays are right around the corner and so are the rich, indulgent foods that adorn many dessert tables. Sweets of the season tend to be rich in flavor but also calories and fat.

Still, you don’t have to deny your cravings this holiday season. It is possible to create satisfying, sweet treats that are healthier options than traditional holiday fare. With these quick nutrition-savvy tips, enjoying decadent desserts has never tasted so good.

Infuse fresh flavors

Start your baking with all-natural ingredients and incorporate seasonal fruits and vegetables, such as apples, pears, sweet potatoes, pomegranates and pumpkins. These, along with super foods like walnuts and soy, are excellent choices to increase the nutritional benefits, and enhance the flavor, of baked goods.

Try fresh variations to old classics to give your homemade desserts a gourmet twist. Add a dash of vitamin A-rich chili powder for a bold take on dark chocolate brownies or tarts. Experiment with exciting combinations like lavender and lemon for a bright, unique flavor and a healthy dose of iron, plus vitamin C. Mix antioxidant-rich basil and cinnamon to produce a powerful taste sensation with added health benefits.

Make smart swaps

When deciding on a recipe for your next holiday gathering, take a look at its nutritional value, as not all desserts are created equal. To create reduced-guilt baked goods use alternative ingredients, such as egg whites instead of whole eggs or whole wheat flour instead of white flour. Apple sauce is also a clever way to introduce moisture into cakes rather than using oil.

A reduced-fat pumpkin pie – which can be made by blending pumpkin with healthier ingredients, like egg substitute and non-fat milk, may be significantly lower in calories and fat than pies made with full-fat ingredients.

As an added bonus, the leftover pumpkin pie ingredients, plus a few extra items likely on hand in your kitchen, can easily yield a low-calorie smoothie. This smooth, frozen treat is the perfect way to enjoy the fruits of your labor while baking for company.

Add a smooth finish

Don’t discount chocolate. In addition to being delicious, dark chocolate with at least 70 percent cacao contains heart-friendly antioxidants. Make a festive fondue platter with warm dark chocolate and sliced fruits like bananas, pineapple and strawberries.

Similar to a traditional fondue table, by creating a variety of dips and glazes, you and your guests can indulge in a sinfully good concoction that is still light on calories. For dips, opt for a Greek yogurt base that is high in protein and sweeten with natural ingredients, such as agave nectar and honey. A cinnamon glaze made with soy milk and tofu will please your palate – even if you follow a vegan diet.

Pick petite portions

Anyone with a sweet tooth can attest to the desire to eat with abandon during the last course. However, controlling portion sizes – whether cutting thinner slices of cake or splitting a piece with a friend – is an important part of smarter holiday indulgence.

Better yet, stick to smaller servings by getting creative with the end product. When baking a pie, lose the top crust. Or, instead of a pie, try a bite-size tartlet. Encourage sampling by making mini-muffins and cupcakes rather than their oversized counterparts.

Making a few small changes to your ingredients and your intake will lower calories, provide some unexpected nutritional benefits and keep you satisfied all season long.

Experience the flavor of Vietnamese cinnamon

Cinnamon may be the world’s most popular baking spice, but all cinnamons are not created equal, and in the foodie world, Vietnamese cinnamon has emerged as the most prized of the bunch.

The bunch, by the way, includes an array of cinnamons and cassias, all from evergreen trees of the Cinnamomum genus. Some are from Indonesia, others from China, Sri Lanka or Mexico.

Dark reddish/brown and lushly aromatic, Vietnamese cinnamon is favored for its distinctly sweet, peppery, spicy flavor. Less tannic and more robust than its relatives, it delivers a powerful taste whether used solo – as in those gooey rolls or spirally bread – or in combo with other spices – in a curry or pumpkin pie spice blend, for example.

All that potency comes from an extraordinarily high volatile oil content – the highest of all the cinnamons about 1 to 6 percent, compared with .5 to 2.5 percent in other cinnamons. The high oil content also helps the flavor disperse fully; there’s no mistaking what spice you’re dealing with when you taste a dish seasoned with Vietnamese cinnamon.

Tips for using Vietnamese cinnamon:

Browse any assortment of baking recipes and you’ll find cinnamon in the ingredients lists for cakes, muffins, breads, cookies, pies, bread puddings, cobblers, crisps, and pastries. It also has a special affinity for fruits, such as apples, apricots, cherries, pears, bananas and citrus.

Cinnamon’s warm flavor also shows up in plenty of savory dishes – soups, sauces, chutneys, catsup, pickles, fish, meat and poultry glazes, as well as many ethnic recipes. Its pungent sweetness also enhances grains and hearty vegetables like carrots, squash, potatoes, beets and onions. In most savory dishes, cooks prefer Vietnamese cinnamon over other cinnamons because of its ability to hold its own alongside other lively ingredients.

When using Vietnamese cinnamon to spice a beverage – a hot cocoa, an eggnog, hot cider, coffee or tea – you might start by stirring it into your prepared beverage just a bit at a time. Once you nail your preferred amount, you can add it directly – right into your coffeemaker basket along with your ground coffee, your mulling cider pot or your tea blend, for example.

Vietnamese cinnamon also partners well with other spices like cloves, nutmeg, cardamom, ginger, allspice and black pepper.

Here are a few places you might not have considered using cinnamon:

* Soups, stews and chili
* Peanut brittle
* Popcorn seasoning
* Spice rubs for meats
* Grilling marinades for fruits
* Rice and tapioca puddings
* Chocolate cakes
* Spiced nuts
* Granola and muesli

Here’s a recipe that shows off the vibrant flavor of Vietnamese cinnamon:

Poached Cinnamon Cheese Pears

4 large pears
3/4 cup pear juice
1 tablespoon honey
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cinnamon stick
2 tablespoons golden raisins
4 ounces softened cream cheese
1/4 teaspoon Vietnamese cinnamon powder
3 tablespoons slivered almonds

Slice pears in half lengthwise and core. Place in a saucepan. In a small bowl combine juice, honey, vanilla extract, cinnamon stick and raisins; pour over the pears. Cover and simmer about half an hour, until pears are just tender. Place pears on a serving platter. Blend together cream cheese, leftover cooking liquid and cinnamon powder. Spoon some of the mixture atop the center of each pear, sprinkle with almonds, and serve.

Makes four large servings.

For a collection of seven savory recipes with cinnamon from various publications, visit www.theKitchn.com. Vietnamese cinnamon is available through Frontier Natural Products. They offer their organic Vietnamese cinnamon (5 percent oil) in one-pound bulk bags as well as 1.31-ounce bottles. This brand won the Gold Star Award from the restaurant industry publication Sante Magazine, who deemed it “a standout.”

The beauty of holiday traveling

Vocalists from Perry Como and the Carpenters to Michael Buble have warbled about how wonderful it is to be home for the holidays. But who says you have to buy into that belief? Not being home for the holidays offers many advantages, including the opportunity to travel, visit far-off loved ones or just immerse yourself in total relaxation during one of the most hectic times of the year.

While families with small children may embrace the experience of decorating, cooking and gift-giving in the comfort of their own home, other groups – such as families with teens, couples without kids, and baby boomers who love to travel with friends – may feel ready to revel outside their home zone. Like traveling at any time of year, holiday trips are not without hassles, but the benefits can make the challenges worthwhile.

Here are a handful of reasons why not being home for the holidays could make the season bright:

* Total relaxation – Instead of hurrying to decorate your home, host a soiree, accept every invitation, prepare enough food to feed an armored battalion, and find exactly the right gift for everyone you’ve ever met, going away to a resort during the holidays can help ease holiday stress. Opt for a quintessential winter getaway and you’ll enjoy a snowy holiday season, complete with carolers, hot cocoa and holiday decor around every corner.

* Visiting far-away loved ones – Is there an adored cousin whom you just don’t get to see that much anymore? A brother who lives five states away whom you haven’t shared the holidays with since you both lived with your parents? Giving up being in your own home for the holidays affords you the chance to enjoy part of the season in the home of loved ones you see infrequently. While you spend the whole year with the family you live with or the ones who live nearby, the holidays are the perfect time to re-connect with family and friends who live far away. And, if you don’t want to add to their stress during the season, you can find plenty of great hotel deals in cities across the country.

* Savoring seasonal flavors without the work – Holiday cookies, pumpkin pie and elaborate dinners are an integral part of the season for many people, but they’re also a lot of work. Staying in a hotel or luxury resort during the holidays ensures you’ll be able to enjoy all your favorite flavors of the season – prepared by a professional chef and leaving cleanup chores to someone else. Instead of spending hours in the kitchen preparing and cleaning, you’ll get to share those seasonal flavors with your traveling companions.

* Great travel deals – Knowing many people prefer to stay home for the holidays, top hotels and resorts across the country offer travel packages, deals and incentives to entice holiday travelers. Add-ons abound, from all-inclusive offerings with meals, parties and special dinners, to shopping packages that provide travelers with access to and discounts for premium shopping venues.

Travel like a local

Americans are on the move: logging two billion business and leisure trips of 50 miles or more from home for at least one night last year alone, according to the U.S. Travel Association. Today, more people are looking for authentic travel activities – ones that are outside the traditional museum or monument visit. To get more out of your next vacation, consider expert advice on how to break out of the tourist rut and have a truly authentic local experience.

“The single biggest thing you can do to trigger these experiences is to talk to people – talk to locals,” says Reena Ganga, Gadling blogger and Wanderplex Founder. “But since that’s easier said than done, I think there are several ways you can try to foster interactions with locals and put yourself in a position to create great travel memories.”

Hyatt House, an upscale extended stay hotel brand located across-the United States,-has teamed up with Ganga and America’s favorite lifestyle maven, Martha Stewart, to help vacationers learn the tricks of travelling like a local with the following tips:

Reena Ganga’s tips:

* Trek like the locals. Don’t limit yourself to sightseeing buses or taxis. If the locals travel in communal mini-vans or via bike, do it too. Locals who aren’t used to seeing tourists take that form of transport often find their tenacity endearing and will make the effort to talk to them.

* Go off the beaten path. Make time to head to the smaller, secondary cities when you travel. These are often the places that feel the most culturally distinct. If you’re in a big city, head outside the tourist zones and into interesting neighborhoods where the locals spend their time.

* Choose a place that feels like home. Instead of staying in a traditional hotel, think about staying in a serviced apartment or an extended stay hotel like Hyatt House, where you have a living room and kitchen. Then head out to the local market and talk to the vendors. You’ll discover the produce and products that are special to that area, and you never know where the conversations will lead.

* Eat with the locals. Don’t just eat at chain restaurants that you’re familiar with or that only have English menus. Go where the locals congregate. Whether it’s a mom-and-pop restaurant or a street stall, local eateries are likely to have more authentic food and the locals are often eager to tell you about the food, how to eat it, etc.

* Put away technology. If you find yourself lost while traveling, don’t immediately refer to maps on your phone – stop and ask a shopkeeper for directions. If you need a restaurant recommendation, don’t just search online. Ask locals for their tips – it’s a great excuse to strike up a conversation.

Keep in mind, traveling with a local mindset means taking a new approach to packing, too. Stewart offers these smart packing tips:

* Distribute weight evenly. Pack the heaviest items, such as shoes and toiletry bags, at the bottom. Pack socks inside shoes to prevent footwear from getting squished.

* Skip checked baggage. A canvas bag with a sturdy strap is great for packing for any length of trip. Remember, if you forget something, often hotels can help. Hyatt House has the Hyatt Has It – Borrows program, which can supply everything from a phone charger to yoga mats.

* Carry-on with care. Because you never know when weather or unforeseen events will cause travel delays, pack a carry-on bag containing items you would be very unhappy to lose, such as medications and toiletries.

* Stay clean on the run. Travel-size packaged antibacterial towelettes are great for keeping your hands and face clean.

* Regulate wrinkles. Use large drycleaner bags to pack bulky sweaters or cardigans. The plastic helps prevent wrinkling.

* Secure belongings. If you’re traveling a long distance, use a lock and key or combination lock to protect your belongings.

These simple tips make it easy to travel like a local and get the most out of your next vacation. You’ll be delighted by the unique memories and wonderful stories you get by traveling with a local mindset.

Sources: Martha Stewart Living, June 2003; Martha Stewart Digital, Article: Smart Packing Tips; Martha Stewart Video – Organizing: Helpful Tips for Packing Travel Bags; The Martha Stewart Show, Season 7, Episode 7099 (How to Pack a Suitcase Lightly for Easy Travel)

Adding Traditional Twists to Thanksgiving

Across America, families will be spending Thanksgiving together, and more than likely, enjoying the same menu items they’ve enjoyed in years past. Interestingly, more than half of Americans would embrace adding new foods or new preparations to the Thanksgiving table this year, and many think that side dishes provide the perfect opportunity to experiment, according to the findings of a new survey.

The survey conducted by Pillsbury reveals that 89 percent of Americans say preparing homemade foods shows their loved ones how much they care. However, many think the Thanksgiving meal is the most stressful of all holiday meals to make, and 72 percent are always looking for tips and tricks to prepare their dishes quicker.

The survey also shows how new food trends are shaping today’s Thanksgiving table. While some households are starting to offer alternatives to turkey, more are incorporating vegetables into their meals. Green beans, corn and carrots are among the top vegetables that Americans will serve for Thanksgiving. Other side dish staples include stuffing or dressing, potatoes, yams, sweet potatoes and cranberries. With the need to reduce meal preparation time, and the interest of many to incorporate new dishes to their traditional meal, an easy and delicious dish such as Sweet Potato Casserole Crescents is one that will surprise and delight friends and family members.

Pie is a traditional Thanksgiving element and many families will end their meal with the pumpkin variety, the top Thanksgiving dessert served across America, according to the survey. Apple and pecan pies are close followers.

“We often hear from consumers that they want to make a homemade pie for their holiday celebration, but they find making the pie crust challenging,” says Madison Mayberry, Pillsbury food editor and entertaining expert. Her recommendation: make a homemade pie using a Pillsbury Pie Crust, found in the refrigerated aisle at your supermarket. The pre-made crust allows you to unroll, fill, top and bake, saving time and making it easier to bake a delicious pie. Mayberry recommends adding one of these popular pie recipes to your holiday meal: New Fashioned Pumpkin Pie, Perfect Apple Pie, or Salted Caramel Pecan Pie.

New-Fashioned Pumpkin Pie

Ingredients:

1 box Pillsbury refrigerated pie crusts, softened as directed on box

2 eggs

3/4 cup sugar

1 1/2 teaspoons pumpkin pie spice

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 can (15 ounces) pumpkin (not pumpkin pie mix)

1 can (12 ounces) evaporated milk (1 1/2 cups)

Directions:

1. Heat oven to 425 F. Place pie crust in 9-inch glass pie pan as directed on box for One-Crust Filled Pie.

2. In large bowl, beat eggs with wire whisk. Stir in remaining ingredients until well blended.

3. Pour into crust-lined pan. Bake 15 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 350 F; bake 40 to 50 minutes longer or until knife inserted near center comes out clean.

4. Cool completely, about 2 hours. Store in refrigerator.

Tradition holds true across the country when it comes to Thanksgiving dinners. But with emerging food trends, and families trying to incorporate time-saving techniques and modernizing some of the classic recipes, today’s Thanksgiving table has a bit of a new look from years past.

For more Thanksgiving holiday recipe ideas, visit Pillsbury.com.

 

The regional magazine for women