Thursday, January 8, 2015

Lebanese Bread Pudding (Aysh Al Saraya): Interview with Joumana Accad + GIVEAWAY!

Every year, we visit one of my cousin's on Christmas Day. Every year, one of my aunts brings her specialty, this big casserole dish of a white cream sandwiched between crushed pistachios and some sort of pastry drenched in rose-scented syrup.  My pleads for the recipe are always met with a promise for a tray of my own, which means I have to wait another 364 days before tasting this heavenly treat again. Fortunately, I have friends in high places, like  Joumana Accad. The accomplished Lebanese-American cookbook author and food blogger behind Taste of Beirut is on a mission is to revive traditional recipes inspired by her grandmother, including the one I was desperately seeking. It is easy to lose track of time hopping from page to page on her site and cookbook of the same name, filled with beautiful imagery of  the delectable cuisine and landscape of her homeland. After making her recipe for the fragrant dessert, I found myself wondering how Joumana arrived at her current post. The epitome of Middle Eastern hospitality, she agreed to grant me an interview. So, grab a cup of tea and find out what makes her such an inspiring soul with a vibrant personality. 

Coco: What inspired you to start blogging?
Joumana: I was sorely disappointed by the reality of working in bakeries and restaurant kitchens; all that matters is the bottom line (making $) and I had one of my bosses call me "an artist" and I don't think he meant it as a compliment. True, I liked to use the best ingredients and he liked to sell his clientele frozen crap. I felt that blogging was the perfect medium for self-expression, tackling the field I was so passionate about, cooking and baking and showcasing my Lebanese heritage. 

Coco: Your videos remind me a lot of my happy childhood, running around fruit trees at my uncle's villa in the Persian countryside. Do you shoot on location in Beirut?
Joumana: I shoot the videos on location in Deir el-Qamar, in the Chouf Mountains; this is where my grandmother's family was from and where she and I used to spend summers. 

Coco: Is food your occupation or you do have a boring desk job?
Joumana: It is a full-time occupation; I have done food styling gigs and menu consultation as well as demos and presentations to corporate clients. 

Coco: Your cookbook is gorgeous. How long did it take you to create it?
Joumana: My cookbook took 2 1/2 years of solid work, because I insisted on taking the photographs myself (doing the prop styling etc) instead of having the publisher resort to stock photos.

Coco: Arabic food is a labour of love well worth the effort. How many hours do you spend
in the kitchen daily, making dinner?
Joumana: It varies. In Lebanon, luckily, I get to work with seasoned cooks; I learned a lot from them and cooking with others is more enjoyable. 

Coco: There is a common misconception in the West that the Middle East is a desolate desert. 
What is the most important message you want to convey?
Joumana: What interests me beyond food and recipes is culture; I try to weave it through the cookbook, blog posts, and social media. 

Coco:: Describe Christmas @ your home: Crazy & chaotic or quiet & relaxing?
Joumana: N/A Christmas is at my cousin's and she is the consummate hostess, always inviting her closest 50 or so friends around a sumptuous feast. 

Coco: Your recipes are authentically traditional. Do you ever sway and incorporate something trendy 
like chia, spelt or quinoa?
Joumana: Authentic recipes are what I missed most living as an immigrant far from Lebanon and I strive to make authentic recipes more manageable for the harried cook. However, it is hard not to be creative in this field, so I allow myself some original creations. I am not interested in trendy foods. 

Coco: Do you have your own garden? What do find most difficult to grow?
Joumana: Yes, the vegetable and orchard is located in Lebanon, in the Chouf Mountains and this is where I shoot the videos. Because the garden is at a relatively high altitude, some things do not grow well there such as citrus or tropical fruits such as mangoes. What does grow extremely well are eggplants, tomatoes, onions, Swiss Chard, grapes, green beans, apples, peaches, cherries,  and mulukhiyeh (jute leaves)! 

Coco: Are you a shoe or handbag girl? 
Joumana: I am a minimalist. If I could wear a uniform every day, I would. 

Coco: What's your guilty indulgence?
Joumana: Chocolate, chocolate, chocolate.
Coco: I see now why I like you.

Coco: What do you refuse to eat?
Joumana: After seeing animals getting slaughtered, I am finding it harder and harder to eat meat. I still do though.  I do not care for raw meat at all. I refuse to eat cold cuts, unless I make them myself (it is not that hard). I refuse to eat very salty, greasy foods or supermarket cakes with frosting from a box.

No supermarket cakes and boxed frosting for this girl. She is an avid advocate for all-natural ingredients, cooking the way our grandmothers did. Everyone's mom adds her own special little touch to a recipe. And in the West, young immigrants and second-generationers incorporate new-fangled ingredients like spelt flour, chia and quinoa into the mix. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but somewhere along the way, the original flavours are lost. Joumana dusts off the books and returns old world recipes to their original glory. As such, her culinary library offers the how-to's for Lebanese favourites, including my beloved Aysh al Saraya. As sexy as its name, here is a luscious treat fit for a sultan, but surprisingly ready in a snap. Aysh means bread or life itselfSaraya is Arabic for royal palace. As such, this dessert is aptly named in reference to a life of luxury.

Something of a Lebanese version of bread pudding or tiramisu, Aysh al Saraya is a treat made of  luscious cream  on top of syrup-soaked bread, wrapped in the scent of rose petals and orange blossoms. Unlike most Middle Eastern recipes, this one is quick and easy, which means it won't be long before you can actually enjoy it. So, put the kettle on and let's get started.

Aysh al Saraya
Note: A few drops of green food colouring will make the pistachio pop, but I prefer to keep everything natural. Joumana would agree.

Source: Taste of Beirut
Serves 6

1 round loaf white bread or 20  slices sandwich bread, crusts cut off (use the bread crumbs if you are making individual servings, it is easier to manage)
9 ounces sugar (1 1/4 cups)
4 ounces water
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon of orange blossom water
1 tablespoon of rose water
2 cups of ashta (recipe follows) OR ricotta cheese (whole-milk or light version)
1 cup or more of pistachios


Preparing the bread:

If you are using a whole bread, you will cut off the crust on all sides and place the bread in a pan that fits its size. The thickness of the bread should be about one inch (2 1/2 cm) If you are using sandwich bread, use a food processor (or your hands) to obtain small pieces or medium-sized crumbs and place in the dish of your choice.

Place the sugar, water and fresh lemon juice in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Bring to a boil and let it boil for about 15 minutes stirring,  until the caramel takes on a pretty golden-brown color.

Right before the caramel takes on that color, boil around one cup of water in a teakettle nearby. When the sugar is the color you want, place the saucepan in the sink, and while holding your face safely away from the pan, start adding very slowly the boiling water. Be very careful to avoid getting burned.

If using a whole bread, place the bread in the pan and cook it in the caramel until the caramel is absorbed. If using breadcrumbs, place them over the caramel and let the breadcrumbs absorb the caramel and cool, cooking them if necessary over low-medium heat, or in the oven till absorbed.

Homemade clotted cream or ashta:


2 cups half-and-half or a mixture of milk and whipping cream
2 slices of sandwich bread
2 heaping  tablespoons of  cornstarch mixed with 3 tablespoons water
2 teaspoons orange blossom water and 2 teaspoons rose water


Cut off the crusts of the bread and cut in small dice or pieces.
Place the half-and-half and the bread on medium heat and bring to a boil, stirring frequently.
After about 10 minutes, the bread will have dissolved into crumbs and started melding into the cream. Continue stirring until it is steaming. At this point, add the cornstarch and water mixture and stirring constantly let the mixture thicken for one or two minutes. Add the flavored waters and stir about 30 seconds more.
Cool the ashta.
Fast and easy method using ricotta cheese :

Add to the ricotta cheese the orange blossom water and the rose water, beating slightly with a fork. Use as you would the clotted cream. Use 2 cups of ricotta cheese.

Final Assembly
Place the caramel-soaked bread (or crumbs) in the dish or ramequins that you selected, tapping gently to even out the top surface.
Cover the bread with a generous layer of cream or ricotta cheese. Place in the fridge for thirty minutes or so.
Cover the top creamy layer with finely chopped pistachios. Do not substitute any other nuts, if you want to stick to the traditional dessert.

Aysh al Saraya is a delightful dessert that is a surprisingly easy to make. The syrup can be made ahead of time and stored in the fridge for up to a week. The rest of the ingredients are basic staples that you always have on hand. So you can make this one on a whim, which is often how I like my sweets. The only real waiting time is for chilling, which can be fast-forwarded by popping the tray into the freezer for 15-20 minutes. 

Every shiny page of Joumana's cookbook features tempting photos of beautiful plates and offers matching recipes that are easy even for a novice cook to follow. Enter below to win your own copy and learn to create classic Middle Eastern dishes that are sure to make a lasting impression. This contest is open to my readers in the US, UK and Canada. 

Congrats to Kim N. from the UK for winning a copy of Joumana's delicious cookbook! Also, a big thanks to all of you who participated. Please stay tuned for a very sweet giveaway coming soon.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Food is the foundation of any culture. It sets the scene for gatherings where old friendships are renewed and 
new ones are born. Recipes carried from generation to generation remind young ones of their family's heritage. This is especially true for Middle Eastern families like mine that have been displaced due to political turmoil. The best dishes express admiration and evoke memories of happy days. We cook with love for those we love. This is how I was raised and stands true in my family to this day. Whenever I miss my grandmothers, I put on my favourite apron and head for the kitchen to make one of their recipes. Then, I feel like they are standing right there next to me. 

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Apple Butter Pecan Streusel Sour Cream Coffee Cake with Caramel Drizzle

A slice of cake is a dazzling sight, almost as beautiful as a classic piece of artwork featured in a posh gallery. Unfortunately, the scale was yelling obscenities at me this morning. Then, someone brought a crumb cake to the office today. And a slice was delivered to me. I did not even have to leave my desk. That slice sat next to my computer, whistling and winking at me all day. The aroma of cinnamon and butter was UNbearable. I kept looking at the clock, the words "Girl, pace yourself." circling in my head. When was it going to be 2 o'clock? You see, 2pm is the unofficial time at the office when a few of us brew a fresh pot of coffee for an afternoon wake-me-up. Coffee is my ticket to cake. Those who know me will tell you that my coffee always needs a companion, preferably a crumbly, buttery, nutty, sweet ol' thang.

Despite the verbal abuse I endured from the bathroom scale, I set on a mission to crack the recipe for that crumb cake. Each prototype was received with rave reviews and requests for encores. Now, my version is top-notch. The sour cream coffee cake is delightful on its own, but here it functions as a vehicle for delivering cinnamon, brown sugar, apples, pecans and caramel. What's more is that if you wrap this little sweetheart in shiny plastic tied with a pretty bow, you will be very well received at any holiday party.

Apple Butter Pecan Streusel Sour Cream Coffee Cake with Caramel Drizzle: This has to be the longest name for a cake in the history of baked goods. However, it is imperative that every descriptive detail be mentioned. When the craving for this crumb cake struck, there happened to be a big jar of homemade apple butter sitting next to a big jar of homemade pecan streusel in my fridge. (A good scout is always prepared, especially for baking emergencies.) The streusel recipe is quite conventional, but I winged it on the apple butter and put real butter into it, because everything is better with butter. No one will ever suspect the apple butter filling and the crispy, toasty pecan streusel became the irresistible crown. As if this cake is not fancy enough, a final touch of a dulce de leche caramel glaze kicks it up a notch or two.

Apple Butter Pecan Streusel Sour Cream Coffee Cake with Caramel Drizzle
Note: The apple butter and pecan streusel can be made ahead of time. There will be plenty for three of these cakes. Store them in glass jars in the fridge for when the craving strikes.

There is certainly no shortage of cake pans at our house. I have several nice Nordicware Bundt pans as well as a trusty, old aluminum sponge cake pan (aka tube pan). Those all work well for this cake.


Apple Butter:
3 Granny Smith apples
1/2 stick butter
1/2 cup brown sugar
2 Tb cinnamon
1 tsp cloves
1 tsp nutmeg

2 sticks butter, melted
1/2 cup pecans
1 cup dark brown sugar
1/2 cup sugar
2 Tb cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 1/2 cups all purpose flour

1 1/2 sticks butter, @ room temp
3 free-range eggs, @ room temp
1 cup sugar
2 tsp vanilla
1/2 tsp orange zest
1 1/4 cups sour cream
2 1/2 cups flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
pinch salt

1 cup powdered sugar
3 Tb dulce de leche (or real maple syrup)
1 knob butter


Take 3 eggs and 1 1/2 sticks of butter out of fridge.
Set onto counter to warm to room temp.

Measure streusel ingredients into a clean bowl.
Heat butter until just melted and add to the bowl.
Stir to a sandy consistency.
Set aside.

Preheat oven to 350*F.
Butter and flour a 9-inch Bundt pan.

For the cake batter, cream softened butter and sugar together for 4 minutes.
Slowly incorporate eggs, one at a time.
Add sour cream, zest and vanilla.

Sift flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt into another clean bowl.
Add to the batter and mix until just incorporated.

Pour 1/2 of the batter into cake pan.
Spoon about 8-10 tablespoons of the apple butter evenly over the center of the batter.
Cover with the rest of the batter.
Sprinkle about 10 tablespoons of the streusel on top.

Transfer to the oven and
bake for close to 1 hour.

Insert a toothpick in the center. If it comes out clean,
the cake is ready.

Remove from oven and allow it to rest 10 minutes before
inverting onto a metal rack to finish cooling.

In a small bowl, mix caramel or maple syrup with powdered sugar and just a knob of softened butter.
Drizzle generously over cake and cover to keep the cake moist until ready to serve.

There is no denying the craving for a slice of this cinnamony, buttery apple cake. It tops any coffee cake you have ever tasted, except for Mom's apple cake. That would make stiff competition. I have already made this cake several times. My office mates already asked for repeats and today I baked one for the sweet Syrian family next door to us. As I walked to their house this morning to deliver the cake, the fragrance of cinnamon, apple and butter was intoxicating. The icing has set beautifully and I could just imagine it crumbling delicately under a sharp knife. Let's just hope I get invited over for tea tonight!

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!