Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Mini Pomegranate-Pistachio Meatballs: An Interview with Najmieh Batmanglij #Yalda2014

Winter begins with the longest and darkest night of the year. The Sun moves so slowly that it appears not to be moving at all, hence called the Winter Solstice. This year, it falls on Sunday, December 21st in the Northern Hemisphere. (It was June 21st in the Southern Hemisphere.)  This is also the coldest night of the year. Since ancient times, Persians, Afghanis and Kurds alike have been celebrating this remarkable event called Shab eh Yalda by gathering around a korsi - a low, table draped with a heavy blanket, heated with a tray of coals underneath. More modern versions use an electric heater bolted under the tabletop. 
Friends and family gather around the korsi, sitting on cushions on the floor, all snoodled up with their feet under the tablecloth. Although Armenian, a big part of my heart belongs to the brief childhood I spent in Iran. My mom recalls fond memories of staying up all night with family and friends, munching on fruit and nuts (ajeel), sipping tea, telling stories, singing songs. I was too young when we left for America to remember any of that. So my Persian foodie friends and I decided to revive this lovely tradition this year. Each of us has prepared a special recipe so you can join us. 

If you are going to be up til the wee hours of the longest night of the year, you are going to need some goodies to munch on. To mark the occasion, I chose Mini Pomegranate-Pistachio Meatballs, my favourite recipe from acclaimed Persian food authority Najmieh Batmanglij. Drawing inspiration from poems and historical accounts, Khanoom Najmieh's recipes carry with them a romantic message from the past. 

Among my massive collection of cookbooks are prized copies of her beautiful work From Persia to Napa: Wine at the Persian Table (2006) and  Food of Life: Ancient Persian and Modern Iranian Cooking and Ceremonies (2011). Over the years, I have given both as gifts to so many friends and family members that I have lost track of who already has which! Just in time to celebrate Shab eh Yalda, the charming author graciously granted me an interview and shared some heartwarming facts about herself. 

Coco: I'm a huge fan of your work and have made many
of your recipes. The most interesting so far were the pistachio-pomegranate meatballs. My mom suggested serving them in as appetizers and they were a hit!

Najmieh: I love pistachio meatballs, too. I was inspired to create this recipe from my reading of Persian Safavid court cooking, the combination of pistachio ,pomegranate and grape molasses(16th century),
but, to my surprise, when I was in Kerman last summer interviewing  a  local Kermani cook, she made me a delicious fesenjun using pistachios instead of walnuts, and with inside it she had large pistachio and lamb meatballs.

Coco: Did you always want a career in cuisine?
Najmieh: Yes, I've always loved to cook but my mother would not allow me in her kitchen. She would say Go to university. You'll have plenty of time to cook later in life. So after 7 years in college in the US,  I returned home and handed my master's degree to my mother and she allowed me in her kitchen.

Coco: Who taught you to cook?
Najmieh: My mother.

Coco: Where do you draw inspiration for your cooking?
Najmieh: Persian literature and historical travelogues about Iran, as well as local, regional Iranian cooks both inside and outside the country.

Coco: Do you children share your passion for food?
Najmieh: Yes, especially my youngest son, who loves to cook.

Coco: Why do you think Persian cooking is not as popular as it should be?
Najmieh: In recent history the best of Iranian cooking has been home cooking (and in years past, royal court cooking). Restaurant food in Iran has always been the equivalent of fast food--chelow kabab, kaleh pacheh and dizzy for example--feeding large numbers of people in bazaars and caravansaries. In the past 30 years, most of the Iranians who have started restaurants outside the country have not come from the food business. As a result, the real glory of Persian food has rarely been presented  from the point of view of a foodie  to the world outside of Iranians' homes. All those who have had Persian food at Iranian homes have loved it.

Coco: Do you feel pressured to always turn out a good meal because you do this professionally?
Najmieh: Yes and no. I do feel that I have to serve good food and present it well, but more because that's what I have always felt. My mother, too. For most Iranians, when someone comes to your house, you want them to get a good impression and be served the best of what you have. However, I have been cooking in the kitchen for last 35 years non-stop. I cook effortlessly. I am good! Ha ha ha!

Coco: What are some of your favorites that others make for you?
Najmieh: I love good fresh bread, goat cheese, walnuts and Persian basil.

Coco: What twists did you add to traditional dishes or those you learned from your mom?
Najmieh: For my first cookbook, "Food of Life" I tried to present Persian dishes in a way that was authentic and yet that showed their deliciousness, but, for example, for khoresh-e fesnjan, rather than showing a bowl of brown sauce, which is very un-appetizing, I just added few fresh pomegranate arils and a few toasted walnuts on top of the khoresh. So, in this way, the viewer could visualize the taste.

Coco: What's the secret to making Persian dishes so delicious?
Najmieh: Caramelized onions. Every cook should have a glass container of caramelized onion in their kitchen, and of course fresh, seasonal, high quality ingredients.

Coco: Do you like chocolate? What is your favourite?
Najmieh: I like dark chocolate, a tad salty, a tad minty.

Coco: What's your guilty indulgence?
Najmieh: Good tahdig. (Tahdig is the crispy bottom of a pot of steamed basmati rice. Sometimes, the bottom of the pot is lined with flatbread or potatoes, topped with the rice and allowed to cook til crunchy.)

Coco: Are you a shoe or a handbag girl?
Najmieh: More a shoe girl.

Khanoom Najmieh has a beautiful site with details about her cooking classes and culinary tours. She also contributes mouthwatering recipes to American Pistachio Growers and Epicurious among others. The shimmering holiday season is upon us and cocktail parties are favoured as they are less formal than dinner parties, allow for plenty of social jibber-jabber and delicious finger foods, the best of which are meatballs. No one can resist them, especially those made with pistachios and fresh herbs, baked with a glistening sweet-tart pomegranate glaze. Lucky for us, Mrs. Batmanglij is happy to share her easy and elegant recipe.

Pistachio and Pomegranate Meatballs
Notes: The only changes I made to the recipe below are making smaller meatballs. 

Courtesy of Najmieh Batmanglij

24–30 meatballs.
For the Meatballs:
1 small onion, peeled and cut into 4
1 1/2 cups raw pistachio kernels
1/4 cup bread crumbs
2 cups chopped fresh parsley
1 cup chopped fresh tarragon
1 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon ground cumin
2 teaspoons sea salt
2 pounds ground lamb (or ground chicken or turkey thighs; or boned and skinned ground fish fillets)
1 egg
1/2 cup oil, butter, or ghee

For the Glaze:
3/4 cup pomegranate molasses
1/4 cup honey or grape molasses
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes

For the Garnish:
2 tablespoons chopped pistachios
Sprigs of basil, sprouts, mint
1 cup fresh pomegranate arils

To make the meatballs: Pulse all the ingredients, except the meat and egg, in a food processor until you have a grainy paste. Transfer to a large mixing bowl and add the meat and egg. Lightly knead with your hands for a few minutes (do not overmix). Cover and place in the refrigerator for 30 minutes and up to 24 hours.

Preheat the oven to 500˚F. Generously oil a wide, nonreactive baking dish (wide enough to fit 24 meatballs, about 12x14 inches) and set aside. Remove the paste from the refrigerator and shape into bite-sized balls (about 1 1/2 tablespoons each, you can use an ice cream scoop) and place the meatballs in the baking dish and brush well with oil. Bake in the oven for 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a mixing bowl combine all the ingredients for the glaze. It is important that you taste the glaze and be sure that it has a good balance between sweet and sour—add more honey if the pomegranate molasses you have used is too sour.

Reduce the oven to 400˚F. Glaze the meatballs and bake for another 5 minutes to infuse them with the flavor of the pomegranate. Adjust seasoning to taste. If too sour add more honey; if too sweet add more pomegranate molasses. Keep warm in the oven until ready to serve.

Place the meatballs with its sauce in deep serving dish and garnish.

Living in the digital age has its advantages, but sometimes the simple pleasure of good conversation is forgotten. The Winter Solstice is observed throughout history all around the world. Every culture has interesting traditions to celebrate the coming of Winter. I can think of no better way to spend the evening than around a cozy table with my loved ones. These little pomegranate-glazed pistachio meatballs are the perfect treat for any gathering. See what the rest of the ladies are cooking up. We hope you turn the TV off, put your phone away and join us in starting your own tradition:
Ahu Eats  
All Kinds of Yum  
Bottom of the Pot       
Café Leilee                    
Della Cucina Povera 
Fae's Twist and Tango  
Family Spice  
Fig and Quince  
Honest and Tasty      
Lab Noon         
Lucid Food               
Marjan Kamali       
My Caldron              
My Persian Kitchen     
Parisa's Kitchen          
Persian Spice         
Sabzi Blog                
Simi's Kitchen             
The Saffron Tales  
The Salty Pear            
Spice Spoon          
The Unmanly Chef  
Turmeric and Saffron   
West of Persia           
 Zozo Baking

Friday, December 12, 2014

Easy Gingerbread Cookie Ornaments (Edible) with Eggless Royal Icing

Our little sweetheart loves taking the long way home, looking for twinkling lights. That is one good thing about the early sunsets. We drive up and down the streets, stopping at the houses decked out with colourful lights, candy canes, penguins, polar bears and Santa, of course. The big guy is everywhere - peekabooing out of Christmas trees, standing at the helm of a ship, manning his sleigh, always making Daisy smile. It was high time we did something about our own house. But first, we needed a tree. 

This year we did something a little different. Our friends who have a boy about Daisy's age took us on a train ride to a tree farm. It was the first time Shawn cut down a fresh tree for us. When we brought it back, it filled the whole house with its gorgeous fragrance. It stands tall in our living room in front of the big window. We could not wait to decorate it, but got the flu bug got the best of us. 

Our tree sat with nothing more than some lights wrapped around it for about a week as we took turns on the couch with a box of tissues. All playdates were cancelled since Daisy was not quite her usual chipper self yet. By Sunday, she was bored out of her mind. So, we made French crêpes together for breakfast. 
Then we spent some time playing chase in the backyard. After a trip to the ice cream shop, we stopped by the market for some basic necessities (more butter). When we got home, we checked on Daddy who was still asleep. Now that we had all this butter, there was only one thing to do.Yup, you guessed it - BAKE. 

Because our beautiful tree was so bare, we decided to make it really festive with Gingerbread Cookie Ornaments! 

The holidays awaken old traditions and that includes the decorations. Popcorn garlands and homemade ornaments came long before the first Hallmark store.
old fashioned  Easy enough to capture a child's interest, quality time with my little blue-eyed beauty would be a guarantee. So, we got crackin'. 

Now, our tree looks so festive with stars, penguins, boy and girl cookies. We even have ninjas hanging from some branches. Some are iced with initials of our loved ones' names, some are simple. And, best of all, our whole living room smells like sugar and spice.
There must be something like 4,572 gingerbread cookie recipes around the world by now and if I had the time (and patience), I would fish through all of them to find the very best one. But, since I have neither the time nor the patience, Daisy and I decided to make up our own which turned out to be a winner. 

There was, however, one little problem - I had miscalculated how much molasses was left in the pantry. Eager to make the cookies without having to go out to the shops, I did something that may have the Food Gods strike me down with disapproval - For the missing molasses, I substituted pomegranate molasses. This would not have turned out to be so bad had I increased the sugar content to make up for the tartness of the batter, but I did not. So, our first batch was destined to be for display only. Milou, however, did not seem to mind the odd flavour one bit and ran off with whatever he managed to get!

Before you begin, ask yourself whether you intend to eat these cookies or just display them. If you are going to eat them, use good butter and the very best vanilla. If these cookies are going to just be ornaments or used to build gingerbread houses, omit the vanilla and substitute shortening (Crisco) for the butter. Do a quick inventory of your pantry to make sure you have everything you need.  
This recipe yields about 5 dozen cookies, depending  on the cookie cutters used and how many are eaten before they get out of the kitchen. 
Some people roll out a sheet of dough, bake it, then cut the cookies.
If your waistline (like mine) does NOT permit gobbling up all the little scraps, you should cut first, then bake. You can roll up all the scraps and cut more cookies this way so most of the dough is used. These little guys do not really puff up much in the oven. So what you see really is what you get.

Daisy and I worked in batches, rolling, cutting and baking. We made a hole at the top of each cookie using a drinking straw. Once the cookies cooled, we iced them, threaded colorful string through the hole and hung the cookies from the tree branches.

Gingerbread Cookie Ornaments (Edible)
Notes: The dough can be made the night before as it needs to chill at least 1 hour or overnight.
There are two recipes for royal icing here. Both omit the need for egg whites and make the icing safe for pregnant women and young children. We poured the icing into clean squeeze bottles to make decorating easy with less mess. 

Makes between 50-60 cookies

For the Royal Icing (Eggless):

Recipe #1                            Recipe #2
3 cups powdered sugar        4 cups (16oz) powdered sugar 2 Tb water                           3 Tb meringue powder
2-3 tsp honey                       4 Tb warm water
1 tsp vanilla extract

Measure all ingredients into a bowl.
Beat all ingredients until stiff peaks form
(maybe 8-10 minutes).
The icing is ready when you hold the whisk up
 and the meringue stands at attention.

For the Cookies:

2 sticks (1 cup) butter (or shortening)
3/4 cup brown sugar
2 tsp fresh orange zest
1 vanilla bean or 2 tsp extract
1 cup molasses
1 egg

6 cups flour
2 tsp ginger
4 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp nutmeg
1 tsp cloves
2 tsp cocoa powder
2 tsp baking powder

Cream butter/shortening with brown sugar until smooth.
Add orange zest, vanilla, molasses and the egg.

Sift dry ingredients into a separate bowl.
Reduce mixer speed to low and gradually add the dry ingredients.
Blend just until the flour disappears into the creamy batter and the 
dough comes together in a ball.

Remove the dough from the mixer and divide into 4 parts.
Shape each into a disk and wrap in plastic.
Chill in the fridge at least 1 hour.

Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
Lightly dust a clean surface and a rolling pin with flour.
Preheat oven to 350*F.
Remove one of the dough disks from the fridge.

Roll dough out to about 1/8-inch thickness.
Cut with cookie cutters and gently place onto parchment-lined baking sheet.
Use a drinking straw to punch a hole through the top of each cookie.

Bake 8-10 minutes.

Remove from the oven and allow the cookies to rest on the baking sheet for 5 minutes.
Then use a spatula to transfer them to a rack to finish cooling.

Roll, cut and bake another batch of cookies until all the dough is used up.

Once the cookies have cooled, decorate with the royal icing.
Allow the cookies to sit at least 30 minutes in a cool, dry place for the icing to set.
Then thread pretty ribbon or string through the hole and hang them from the tree branches.

A good many ornaments came from this recipe and kept us busy for the rest of the afternoon. By evening, most of the cookies were iced, threaded and ready for hanging. Shawn woke up and joined us in the living room. Daisy and I hung the cookies from the tree while dodging Milou who was on guard, ready to catch anything that fell to the ground. Christmas music chimed from the radio in the dining room. Daisy had such a good time, she was ready to bake a whole second batch that same night, but it was getting late and we had run out of molasses. I finally got the tree trimming I had been dreaming of for years and now our family enjoys a tree decked out with the handcraft of our little sweetheart. This is a time when sweet memories come to life and the people we love become the best gifts of all.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Interview and Guest Post: The Happy Happy Nester and her DIY Vintage Ornament Wreath

T'is the season for all that sparkles and shines. We certainly have enough ornaments and decorations in our house to make the whole neighbourhood twinkle. But, for the first time in many years, I have grown tired of our decorations and am ready for something new. Odd that what captured my eye was actually something quite old.  Sipping my coffee and zipping through my usual Instagram favourites one morning I stopped at a photo of a wreath my friend Janine had posted. It was made of  mercury glass globes and I just could not stop thinking about it. The Happy Happy Nester had done it again. The same old tarnished and faded ornaments that I had dismissed every time I bumped into a box of them at a garage sale were now very high on my wishlist. Janine is always thinking up fresh ideas for making Home Sweet Home more festive. That wreath made me wonder where she draws up inspiration for her beautiful blog. So, we arranged for a good ol'fashioned chin-wag to talk shop for a bit while. Then, she came through with her promise to teach me how to make that wreath. It won't be long before your see why her happy nature is so captivating.

Coco: What inspired you to start blogging?

HHN: I remember around 2002, my friend started a blog about her travels, and at the time I found it to be such a strange and foreign idea. Fast forward to six years later, I still didn’t understand the blogging world and it didn’t help that my life was more about parenting two toddlers. So, I really didn’t have much time to be at my computer, until 2 years ago. Now that my kids are teenagers, I’m able to carve out some time to pursue my own interests. My good friend, Susan was the one who kept insisting that I start a blog. She was always fascinated by my decorating, painting, and crafting skills, and she believed others probably would love it too. Finally, two years ago, I set up my website, Happy Happy Nester, with help from my tech savvy son. Unfortunately, it took me a while to get serious about this whole blogging world. So, about eight months ago, I made a commitment to post entries on a more consistent weekly basis. I love blogging, and I’m so happy to have found my niche.

Coco: What do you find most rewarding about your blog?

HHN: I love creating and my blog is a wonderful outlet for these talents! Prior to starting my blog, my artistic juices weren’t being flexed much. Now, I have an outlet and platform for my interests, and my life couldn’t be more rewarding! I thoroughly enjoy sharing all my projects with my readers. Additionally, it is cool that this whole creative process has emerged within me! Rekindling my artistic side, has made my world so fulfilling. I know this statement sounds corny, but I couldn’t be any happier!

Coco: Do you find social media tools helpful?

HHN: Yes, I love Pinterest, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. I mostly, lean towards Pinterest and Instagram. I’m a visual learner, and so it makes sense that I would gravitate towards these two social platforms. Instagram allows me to socialize with my viewers and it helps me stay tuned to their interests, likes, and current trends. Also, the social environment provides a wonderful way to get to know other bloggers, of course that is how I met Colette! Secondly, Pinterest is just a fabulous source for inspiration! It is an incredible resource, when I’m stuck on a project. It usually provides a multitude of solutions as well as many more ideas!

Coco: Are you more of a foodie or a crafty?

HHN: My husband and I were just talking about this topic the other day. Of course, I do blog about food, (My husband and I had a blogpost in which we competed with each other on our favorite Brussels Sprout recipes. Here is the link: The Best Brussels Sprout Recipes) and I really enjoy cooking and baking, but ultimately I’m more of a crafts and decor person. He wishes that I was more of a foodie, since that would mean more elaborate meals. But instead, I’m usually deep into my multiple projects and our dinner is the last thing on my mind. The other day, I was working on a project and neglected my soup that I had on the stove. I had great intentions of making a chicken soup for the family. Well, I had the chicken stock going with leftover bones, but failed to notice that I didn’t have any chicken. My husband who makes fabulous soups, had to rescue my broth. He turned it into a nicely seasoned yummy soup! On the flip side, I love making crafts and I have a gazillion ideas buzzing around in my head! I just need more time in my day and week to get them posted on my blog!

Coco: What do you want to achieve with your blog?

HHN: I want my blog to be a creative outlet for me. But, probably and most importantly, I hope that it continues to inspire others to create and make their homes and lives beautiful! I want my followers to feel like crafts and home décor are not a mysterious and difficult thing to achieve. So many of my friends would like to change up their home décor, but don’t even know where to begin. So, one of my goals of my blog is trying to figure out solutions for people, whether it involves decorating, home, garden, travel or cooking! And finally, I would love to be a weekly destination where I assist and inspire them and their home.

Coco: What makes your blog unique?

HHN: I have made an effort to write long informative blog posts that not only show a craft, recipe, or décor, but much more. For instance, on my Fall Apple post (here is the link: Apple Custard Recipe ), I picked a few popular apples and individually gave the history, origin, and a personal taste test of the apples. I love to be very thorough with my post and I hope that it would be a more personal blend of Martha Stewart meets America’s Test Kitchen approach. Every time I set out to write a brief entry, it turns out to be long and epic. Also, I’m starting a new monthly column which will highlight a fun and interesting trip into the many neighborhoods of San Francisco. My friend, Marci and I, want to explore and share all the awesome nooks and crannies of our wonderful city by the bay! So, of course this would give my website a Northern California influence and lifestyle.

Coco: What's the weirdest email/comment you've received?

HHN: Sorry to report I haven’t received a weird comment on my blog! And now that I’ve stated this, I’ll probably get a storm of them!

Coco: How often do you write? Do you have a schedule?

HHN: This past summer I was writing about three times a week, but that nearly killed me! When I blog about my crafts or home décor, I have heavy planning that accompanies the post. Many times, it may take days to round up all the items for the post and then the photo session can take hours. Then comes the writing and designing the actual post, which takes another couple of hours. So, now I write a post once a week and that keeps me busy. It almost feels like if I have a week or a month to write a post, I will use up whatever time I have! I do have a wonderful dry erase board, here is the link of how to make it:  Dry Erase Board. On this board, I schedule about 2 months out. Sometimes, when I have a cool project that unexpectedly pops up, I rework the schedule so I can fit it in!

Coco: Are you a shoe or handbag girl?

HHN: When it comes to shoes, I’m very plain, but I like shoes!! I’m a purse and coat kind of gal!!!

Vintage Ornament Wreath

Thank you so much, Colette, for inviting me over to guest post on your lovely blog. My website is the Happy Happy Nester, and I’m so happy to be sharing my Vintage Wreath Tutorial with all of you! What initially inspired me in regards to project, is my friend’s beautiful vintage wreath in her home. And, ever since I saw hers I’ve always wanted to make one. She bought her wreath at a really cool flea market in San Francisco that sells antiques and vintage crafts. I did happen to spy one in a little boutique in our little town, and it was retailing for $165. If you do decide to make your own vintage wreath, it is a little bit of investment. The ornaments can be found on Ebay, antique stores, and at some thrift shops. If you don’t want to make the investment in vintage ornaments, you can make this wreath with new ornaments. These days, the ornaments look so antique, so there are some nice options. You could use mostly new ones (that look vintage) and then add a few real antique ornaments. Also, I did make a few of my new ornaments look old. I’ll explain how, later in this post. Anyway, let’s get started!

Supplies you’ll need:

12 in styrofoam wreath
About 40 medium size ornaments (I bought half on ebay and half at a wonderful vintage store)
About 40 or more small ornaments
Tinsel, 12 ft
Glue gun and glue sticks
Wire to hang the wreath
Ribbon for a bow, optional

Take stock of all your ornaments and supplies.

Aren’t these the coolest, I just love the boxes too!

I bought most of my ornaments on Ebay, but I did buy a few at this wonderful shop in Danville, California. Cottage Jewel is definitely, a jewel of a shop in this quaint and beautiful town.

This little shop is packed with antique jewelry, dishes, furniture, and much more! If you are ever in the East Bay of San Francisco, you must visit this shop and the main part of Danville. You’ll have a great day shopping in all the wonderful boutique stores and then dining at all the great restaurants. And interesting little bit of Hollywood trivia, the Danville, Bridges Restaurant is where they filmed the dinner scene in the cute movie, Mrs. Doubtfire!

Not all tinsel is created equal, note how different these two are in color. Of course, you can always remove the little colorful accents, which I had to do to the one on the right. If you want to be true to the vintage, you can use antique tinsel. I did find some, and it cost $20 for about 6 feet. For comparison, Michael’s Crafts tinsel cost about $4.00 for 12 feet. I did go with the cheaper newer version from Michael’s Crafts. I ended up using the one to the right, since I wanted a lighter feel to my wreath. When, you choose one, just make sure the shade of tinsel will go with the look you are trying to achieve.

This 12 inch Styrofoam wreath from Joanne’s Fabrics is perfect. It was difficult finding the smaller wreath size. Just remember the bigger the wreath the more ornaments you’ll need. Also, the wreath does expand beyond the 12 inches, since you place ornaments on outer rim.

Wrap the wreath with the tinsel. As you wrap the tinsel, add drop of hot glue on one side of the wreath, and press tinsel into place. The tinsel adds filler and also provides something for the ornaments to attach to.

Tada! I actually think the tinsel wreath is pretty!

Next, tie the wire around the top of the wreath. Make sure to secure the loop so it doesn’t come undone. Don’t forget to do this step at this point of the process, since it will be tough to add the wire once the ornaments are attached.

Layout the ornaments on the outside of the wreath. Now, this is the time consuming part! When it comes to selecting the ornaments, I feel they should be all the same size. Once you have them organized, glue them to the wreath.

Since, I was so excited to make the wreath one night, I was unable to take photos. So, here is another wreath that I made. I’m sure you noticed these ornaments are not vintage.

Next, place your ornaments on the wreath. Also, figure out which ornaments you want to feature and where you want to place them. Then start hot gluing your ornaments. You’ll want to place colors in a balanced way. If you look at my wreath, I dispersed the greens, blues, and yellow equally. If you have ornaments with stripes make sure they compliment each other and don’t clash. For instance, if one striped ornament has stripes going one way, have the other striped ornament on the other side of the wreath mirroring it. Don’t put them close together, unless you want a busy look. Here are some close up photos of the beautiful vintage ornaments!

6. How to make new ornaments look vintage. If you run out of vintage ornaments like I did, you can make new ones look somewhat old. I created a technique uses sharpie markers and a paper towel. Start with light colors and slowly build up with darker colors. After you draw a little section, immediately smudge with a slightly moist towel. Keep adding colors until you get the whole ball covered. On the last step you’ll want to add little brown dots for that vintage look. If you look at the photo above, the ornaments have brownish specks.

Here is my version of a new ornament that I made to look vintage. I don’t think I would make a whole wreath with these, but to supplement your antique ones with this works. I did try the method of applying acetone, and it just kind of took off the paint layer and it didn’t necessarily look antique.

I placed my wreath on our dining room mirror. I attached it with a 3M temporary hanger. I’m enjoying how the colors go so nicely with the room décor. I just may leave it up during the year, in a little less prominent place.

I want to thank, Colette, for graciously inviting me to guest post! I’m so happy to share my thoughts on blogging, as well as show you how to make Vintage Wreath! Hop on over for a visit, I would love to see you at Happy December, and I hope you have a wonderful holiday season, filled with family and fun!


Thursday, December 4, 2014

Snowball Cookies (Italian Wedding Cookies)

Sleigh bells ring
Are you listening
In the lane
Snow is glistening
A beautiful sight,
We're happy tonight
Walking in a winter wonderland

Gone away, is the bluebird
Here to stay, is a new bird
He sings a love song,
While we go along
Walking in a winter wonderland

Winter Wonderland is such a sweet song, a throwback to a time when life was more simple in many ways. There were no dishwashers, touchscreens or iTunes and no such thing as personal digital valets (you know, Siri). But, there was plenty of quality time with friends and family - gatherings around the fire, storytelling and singing. Kids played in the streets, kicking a ball around or getting into snowball fights. Since it does not snow where we live, I decided to come up with my own rendition of Winter Wonderland at home with my little blue-eyed beauty.

We Armenians call them Ghurabia, while in Greece, they are known as Kourabiedes. Then, Mexicans and Italians alike simply call them Wedding Cookies. Tea cakes in Russia translate into Snowballs here in the West. Fabled to be from the Middle Ages, the same basic recipe popped up in so many different places on the global map that it had to be really good. Word travels fast when you are a foodie with a raging sweet-tooth.

Whatever you call them, the combination of butter, nuts and sugar proves impossible to resist. Their cute round shape and final flocking with powdered sugar are what make them look like adorable bite-sized snowballs. Whether the eggs were left out accidentally or intentionally isn't clear, but either way, it is a brilliant exclusion because these sweeties have a decent shelf-life, that is if any stay in the cookie jar long enough for it to matter.

Do not even think about using margarine or shortening, unless you are strictly vegan. Butter is better for you. Whether you want to hear it or not, you are an animal and as such, you are not build to process stuff that comes from a laboratory. Can't pronounce it? Don't eat it! If you absolutely must cut calories, drop the burger and grab a bowl of soup, but, never skip dessert. Life is short and not worth living without something sweet like homemade Snowballs. Mine take an interesting turn with fresh lemon zest and fragrant tea leaves folded into the batter.

Now is that wonderful time of year when I am looking for any excuse to convince Daisy to put on her apron and bake something sugar and spice and everything nice with me. Mildly sweet, crumbly little nuggets of nutty goodness, Snowball cookiess are so yummy, you will pardon the imperfections in their figures.
Whether you use walnuts, pecans, pistachios or almonds, they promise to taste terrific and since there is no egg in the mix,  they keep for nearly 2 weeks in an airtight container and freeze beautifully. Just revive them with a fresh dusting of confectioner's sugar after they thaw.
Based on an Italian recipe just-a like-a Mama used to make, mine is very easy and great to make with the kids. Rolling the dough may be almost as much fun as eating the cookies fresh out of the oven.

Snowball Cookies
Adapted from Rocco DiSpirito
Makes about 6 dozen 1-inch balls

3 sticks butter, at room temp.
3/4 cup powdered sugar + extra for dusting
1 lemon, zest only
1 tsp Earl Grey tea leaves
pinch salt
1 1/2 cups ground almonds
2 vanilla beans or 4 tsp extract
3 cups flour

Preheat oven to 350*F.
Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.
Beat butter until creamy, then slowly incorporate the sugar.
Add the zest, tea, salt, almonds and vanilla. 
Mix until light and fluffy.

Slowly add the flour and mix just until it disappears into the batter.
Shape teaspoons of the dough into balls and arrange about 1-inch apart
on the baking sheet.

Transfer to the warm oven and bake 15-20 minutes. Do not allow the cookies to brown.
Allow the cookies to cook a minute or two before tossing them into confectioner's sugar.
Store in an airtight container for up to 2 weeks or freeze until ready to serve.

It's been a long time since I have seen snow. Daisy was a giggly little two-year-old, sliding down the snowy hill with Shawn over and over and over again. Time slips by so quickly. One day, she will be old enough to pack her bags and run off to study Italian in Florence. I just want to stop the clock and savor every moment with her. Luckily, a big rainstorm finally came to town and holiday cheer is in the air. Snowball cookies are in order. The fact that they are so well-traveled attests to their popularity. Rolling a big batch with my little sweetheart was so much fun. I can't wait to bake more of them, but the best part are the memories in the kitchen that will last long after the cookies are gone.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Maple-Glazed Vegan Coconut Bacon

Apparently, you can now buy vegan bacon. Sounds like a paradox. This is not something you would find in my shopping cart. I like to keep it real. Real butter, real sugar, real bacon. That was until I met a very cute and very pink piglet at the local farmer's market. Giving up bacon was really not that difficult. If a hunter can cook a vegan meal, anything is possible. Hank makes a good point and our Meat + Taters culture is centered too heavily on meat, anyway. While I agree with the concept of being vegan, I really do not like ingesting a ton of chemicals created in a lab to replace natural ingredients. It usually tastes bad, too.

Enter Vegan Bacon. Yes, fake bacon. You know I do not like anything artificial, but this stuff is made from real coconut and real maple syrup. Put good stuff into a dish and get good stuff out of a dish. Considerably better for you than actual bacon, this stuff is teeming with the good type of fats, vitamins, minerals, even antioxidants. Even liquid smoke is natural; it is just the condensation produced when wood chips are smoked. Coconut Bacon might win you endorsements from PETA, gurus worldwide, your family doctor and, most importantly, Mom. As a bonus, this stuff actually tastes so damn stuff-your-face good, it will send you running down the street, smackin' your lips, slapping yourself happy. Ok, maybe nothing so dramatic, but doing the right thing and eating the right foods feels good, doesn't it? Even the texture is on target. The coconut releases its natural oils in the hot pan and becomes crispy the same way real bacon does when fried. Sweet, salty, smoky, crunchy and unspeakably tasty, just like real bacon, but not.

Maple-Glazed Vegan Coconut Bacon
Note:  The smoked paprika adds a bit more flavor and color, but is really not necessary.
Makes 3 cups

Supplies                                                    Steps
3 cups sliced, unsweetened coconut             Line a cookie sheet with paper towels. Set aside.
1 tsp smoked paprika (optional)                  Place a large nonstick pan onto medium-high heat.
2 Tb soy sauce                                            Toss everything into the pan and stir occasionally.
1 Tb freshly cracked black pepper               Continue frying until the coconut becomes golden.
1 Tb liquid smoke                                        Remove from heat and transfer onto paper towels.
1 Tb maple syrup                                         Store in an airtight container for up to 2 weeks.

Maple-Glazed Vegan Coconut Bacon is as fabulous as its name. Serve it along with the any of the usual breakfast favourites, whether eggs and hash browns, pancakes or French toast. It is also a delicious stand-in for pork bacon in primetime dishes like Mac n Cheese, green bean casserole, pumpkin soup, etc etc etc. I have some ideas of my own cooking up. Wait til you see what I have for you in an upcoming post. No piggies were harmed in the making of this Maple-Glazed Vegan Coconut Bacon. So eat with abandon and do not worry about your cholesterol level or your place in Heaven. This stuff tastes so good, you just might think you are dreaming. Now you can tell the kids "Finish your bacon - it's good for ya!" and mean it.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Grandma's Butter Toffee Peanut Popcorn

Trips to the supermarket are a funny routine for Daisy and me. Before we even reach the door, she argues her case about being too mature to sit in the shopping cart, after which I try to find a way to coax her into the seat. We roll around, gathering all the basic necessities and finish with a trip toward the produce section. By now, we are usually negotiating whether and when she can have ice cream. I get to pontificate to a toddler about the importance of eating a healthy, balanced meal before sugary sweets. Incidentally, I happen to be indulging in a warmed chocolate chip cookie with a tall glass of ice-cold milk while I am telling you my story. As I was saying...It is not long before I run into the Snack Monster and, if I do not give into his demands, I will grab everything off the shelves with big ambitions of cooking a 10-course meal with all the fixings, including several choices of desserts. This is what happens when I go grocery shopping on an empty stomach and accounts for my popularity among the cashiers.

My eye catches a glimpse of those cute, little crinkly bags of Cracker Jacks conveniently hanging from the corner post of the pasta sauce aisle. It really is an odd place to put candy, but, come to think of it, caramel corn would not be bad after a big bowl of pasta marinara, right? Then my left hand does this strange thing and automatically reaches for a bag. Then it opens the bag, reaches in, clasps a small bunch of caramel-covered popcorn and shoves it right into my mouth.  All the while, I have been preaching to Daisy about how important it is to eat a proper dinner before chomping on sweets. She must think I am such a hypocrite. Popcorn, even the caramel-covered stuff is not usually a temptation for me. But, Cracker Jacks are a serious problem.

However, there just never seems to be enough of those toasty peanuts in the bag. Is there an embargo on peanuts? It would be really nice if they were evenly dispersed among the popcorn, but inevitably they somehow gather at the bottom of the bag instead, along with the dusty bits and lint. So, last weekend, I decided to take charge of the matter and make my own version at home, with a ridiculous surplus of those peanuts we all love so much. Then, to take it over top, I drenched the popped corn and peanuts with my grandmother's butter toffee. Damn good stuff, I tell ya and no one has to know how easy it is to make.

Butter Toffee Peanut Popcorn
Makes 9 cups

1 stick of butter
1 cup sugar
2 Tb honey
pinch salt
8 cups popped corn
16 oz jar roasted salted peanuts

Cover two cookie sheets with foil and sprinkle popcorn in a single layer. Add peanuts.
Melt butter, sugar, honey and salt in a heavy-bottomed pan and place over medium-high heat.
Using a wooden spoon, stir occasionally until a golden colour develops and the mixture becomes fluid.
Be careful not to burn the caramel as it will taste bitter.
Pour over the popcorn and peanuts.
Wait 10 minutes before handling.

Candied popcorn is one of those old timey treats that never goes out of fashion and smothered in my grandmother's butter toffee with oodles of peanuts everywhere makes it impossible to resist. It is so easy to make and everything you need is probably already in your kitchen. Enjoy a big bowl with your family while watching a Christmas classic together or surprise your guests at your next holiday party. Making your own means you will never have to dig around the bottom of the bag for the peanuts.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Beans + Booze = Homemade Vanilla Extract

Christmas is still a bit while* away, but I have already started planning. I will do anything to avoid that last-minute manic rush to the shops in the coming months.

The holidays make some people a little crazy. If you made it onto Santa's Nice list, you might just witness a delightful show starring a tangle-haired, growling bear of a woman clawing at another over the last pair of rhinestone-studded hot pink fuzzy boots.

While everyone enjoys a good cat fight, I find it destroys my faith in humanity, especially this time of year. I would much rather spend lazy evenings sipping cocoa by the fire. That means getting my shopping done early and spending some time making a few of the gifts myself.

If you are looking for a charming, but easy handmade gift, now is the time to get started. Far more valuable than anything with a blingy price tag, that cute little bottle of homemade vanilla extract is great for anyone on your list. There are some people on this planet who actually do not like chocolate (I know, wow.), but do you know anyone who does not like vanilla?

I love seeing those tiny black vanilla specks in home-baked sweets. That is how I got into using whole beans, which I was surprised to find affordable. The extract is easier to use and a luxury item that is a snap to make at home. There really is not much to making homemade vanilla. Just the beans and the booze.

Decorating the bottles adds a personal touch to these sweet little extracts. I adore plaid and was lucky to have some wintery cream and blue fabric on hand. My handwriting is hardly legible and I had to throw some tags out because I myself could not read what I had written, but they were fun to make with some of Daisy's art supplies.

The Beans
Whole vanilla beans are a luxurious baking ingredient worth the splurge. But, there is no need to break the bank. Spend a bit of time, do some research, because there are some really good deals out there on ebay and amazon. I have been buying bunches of 25 beans at a time. This morning, I was getting ready to dress a cake with fresh homemade whipped cream and when I cut into a bean, it was so dry and leathery that there wasn't much pulp to scrape out. So I myself am on the market for a new supplier and have it on good authority that Whole Foods actually has quality vanilla beans at a decent price. Guess where I'm going right after work today?

The Booze
Commercial extracts use 35% alcohol (70 proof). Rum, brandy, bourbon and vodka are most commonly used. Vodka is my preference because its flavour is neutral and will allow the vanilla to steal the spotlight.
There is no need for stretching your funds for top-shelf alcohol. However, bathing beautiful vanilla beans in cheap alcohol will surely not place you in favour with the food gods. So, go middle-ground as is always wise.

The Formula
1 bean or 2? 2 ounces of alcohol or 4? There is really no exact formula here. I chose 2-ounce bottles, because smaller is cuter. I put only one vanilla bean into the bottle, but two would infuse the alcohol more quickly. There are no rules and that is what makes this a fun project to do with the kids. Just make sure no one sneaks a swig while you are not looking.

The Design
Recently, I sketched a new logo for my blog. The twins holding a bowl together were inspired by my little blue-eyed beauty and have already found their way onto a tux apron. I ordered custom waterproof labels online and they turned out great in white against the chocolate-brown glass. A simple handwritten paper tag, though, is what really gives these little cuties the personal touch and makes them extra-special. This took a bit of effort on my part - If left under the sun, my handwriting will grow legs and walk off (an old Armenian saying). Just make sure yours is legible.

Homemade Vanilla Extract
Note: Below are instructions for how I made the extract and decorated the bottles. Let your imagination loose and do your own thing.

What to Get
750ml bottle vodka
12 vanilla beans
12 amber boston 2oz bottles
a small funnel
sharp paring knife
cutting board

crimping shears
Sharpie marker
decorative hole puncher

12 small rubber bands
12 2x2 swatches of cute fabric
pretty thin ribbon, yarn or sparkly pipe cleaners
custom clear waterproof labels (2" x 1.5")

What to Do
Place a vanilla bean onto a clean cutting board and split lengthwise down the middle with a sharp paring knife.
Fold the bean in half and stuff it through the neck of the bottle, using a chopstick to coax the bean to go into the bottle.
Place the funnel over the bottle and carefully fill the bottle with enough alcohol to completely immerse the bean.
Seal the bottles with the provided caps.

Cut 2"x2" square of fabric using crimping shears.

Place  fabric square over each bottle and secure into place with
a small rubber band.

Cut small 1"x2" tags out of paper with crimping shears.
Punch a pattern (like a heart or snowflake) out with a decorative hole puncher.
Using the Sharpie, label the tag.

Pass the ribbon/pipe cleaner through the hole in the tag
and wrap over the rubber band around the neck of the bottle.

Place them back into their shipping box.
Store them in a cool, dry place like a pantry for at least a month.
Take them out every week or so and give them a little shake to help the vanilla pulp
to loosen and infuse into the alcohol.

Little bottles of homemade vanilla extract promise to make a great impression. Toss the lonely old bow aside and decorate a present with one of these little cuties or hide them in someone's stocking. Even those who do not bake can still enjoy a few drops in their morning coffee or oatmeal. It may even inspire a creative new cocktail. Keep this up and, some day, you just might even make it into somebody's will.

*Bit while: A phrase borrowed from Daisy, one of the many cute things she has coined and will unfortunately soon forget.