Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Baking with Linda: Chocolate-Cranberry-Walnut Biscotti

Chocolate Biscotti Dough
Perfectly Prepared by my Oldest Son
 All my boys, my husband, and extended family (or so they say) love these traditional Italian cookies, which I make about 2 -3 times a year & definitely for Christmas. A delicious blend of flavors and crunch make them a family favorite.

Cream together:
2/3 cup softened butter
1 1/3 cup sugar
4 organic eggs
3 tsp. vanilla extract

Blend dry ingredients (separately):
2/3 cup unsweetened, unsalted cocoa powder
3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
4 tsp. baking powder
1 cup dark, bittersweet chocolate morsels
3/4 cup chopped walnuts
3/4 cup craisins, each sliced in half

Whip the softened butter, sugar, eggs, and vanilla in your KitchenAid Mixer. Incorporate dry ingredients separately in a big bowl. First break up the walnuts by hand and cut the craisins in thirds - less likely for the "bars" to fall apart when slicing them from the log formations.  Once splatter guards are in place (I recommend them!), spoon the dry mixture into the wet mixture, about a half cup at a time.

On Pam-sprayed cookie sheet, form two 12" by 4" logs. Tip from Mom: lightly coat your hands with flour so the dough doesn't stick to your fingers.

Bake 23-25 minutes @375 degrees.  Let cool 20 minutes before slicing, on a slight diagonal, into "bars."  I use a broad-blade knife to slice the logs; my knife measures 1.5"  by  6" and works perfectly.

Situate bars, flat-side-down, onto cookie sheet and bake 6 minutes on each side for about 5 minutes. This allows biscotti to cook through and become firm.

Almost 16, my oldest son is an expert at making these biscotti and can make them completely on his own. He and my 13-year-old fight over who's getting the mixing blade and batter bowl!  As he and his brothers have discovered, chocolate biscotti are excellent for dipping in tall glasses of milk. 
Biscotti look beautiful when served with a fine dusting of confectioner's powdered sugar.  They freeze very well; in fact, we like them right out of the freezer with a cup of capuccino or espresso.

La Dolce Vita

Sunday, December 12, 2010

What We're Reading - Throw Out Fifty Things by Gail Blanke

Decluttering 101:
I heard Gail Blanke speak at an event a few weeks ago and immediately bought her book, Throw Out Fifty Things: Clear the Clutter, Find Your Life.  Gail was funny, engaging, and insightful.  Her book is an easy and fun read, and manages to find the task of decluttering to have profound effects.

The first seven chapters take you room by room through your house - your bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, living room, dining room, attic, and garage.  She encourages you to clear out the physical clutter from the mismatched socks, to the unidenitified keys, to the expired medicines for ailments you no longer have.  Gail next takes you into your office to not only get rid of old credit card statements, but to also streamline your brand. 

After letting go of the physical clutter, Gail encourages readers to let go of the mental mess - letting go of regrets, letting go of having to be right, etc.  Gail shows how de-cluttering your house helps declutter your mind.  This book is definitely not one of the fifty things you should throw out!

~ Laura

Friday, December 10, 2010

Gift-Wrapping & Recycling

Nice-looking boxes sometimes come with things we order online, like these shiney red ones in which a keyboard and an electronic part were shipped!  I tucked these away in my gift closet, planning to use them for Christmas or Valentine's Day.  Well, Christmas is here and I've already found uses for them: one contains a cardigan; the other, a leather wallet.

Recyling and money-saving combined. No need for gift bags, gift boxes, or wrapping paper! Simply glue-gun some seasonal greenery (shown here) or a silk flower. Or, as my mom has always done, tie on a pretty ribbon or nonbreakable ornament for a festive touch.
No Need for Gift Bags or Wrapping Paper:
Just Glue-on or Tie-on an Adornment!

Economizing Key:  If you don't have spare ornaments, artificial greenery, or silk florals lying around, take a restorative nature walk and treasure-hunt outdoors: you can naturally adorn your boxes (or even plain brown bags) by hot gluing pine cones, acorns, or sprigs of natural greenery.

Ornaments and trinkets can personalize the cards and gifts that you give to family and friends.  A beautiful ribbon, like this lacy and gauzy ivory one (pictured below), makes your card special. The added texture and trinket can help prevent the envelope from being misplaced. The receiver of your card or gift will be touched by the extra care you took in giving this birthday, holiday, communion, or sympathy card a little extra TLC.

Adorn Greeting Cards to Add
a Personal Touch
Keep your eyes open for ornaments, dangling trinkets and charms that you can squirrel away and have handy for all-year-round use. Surprisingly, I've found some beautiful adornments at dollar stores, which are very affordable, especially when sold in 2-packs.  
No Need to find the Right Size Gift Box.
Effortlessly Wrap this Large Pottery Barn "Winter Caribou" Platter
and Body Spray in a Reusable Basket Bag
Ornaments Add a Festive Touch to Gift-Wrapping
French Wired Ribbon is my Favorite

~ Linda

Monday, December 6, 2010

Baking with Linda - Walnut Shortbread Cookies

Baking with my children is a favorite pasttime in our home. This week, my three year old son-shine and I made Walnut Shortbread Cookies. Using a Krups electric coffee grinder, he scooped handfuls into the mill and, once the protective top was in place, pressed down firmly on it to start grinding up the walnuts - this recipe called for 1.5 cups finely chopped walnuts, 4.5 cups all-purpose flour, 2 cups vegetable shortening or butter (room temp), 2.5 cups packed light brown sugar, and 2 teaspoons vanilla extract.

Combine flour and finely-ground walnuts.  Cream shortening and brown sugar in a large, separate bowl.  Beat in vanilla. Gradually, blend in the dry ingredients.

Pouring and placing the ingredients into our KitchenAid heavy duty mixer is something the little one loves to do!  And, once the pair of interlocking splatter guards are in place (thank goodness for them!), he lets the powerful mixer rip and hum.  Nothing mixes as evenly or easily as the lifesaving mixer, which my husband (god bless him) picked up for me over a decade ago.

Pinch off walnut-sized pieces of shortbread dough and place 1.5 inches apart on ungreased baking sheet.  Flatten with back of teaspoon (dust spoon with flour first so it doesn't stick). Press half a walnut onto top of cookie.

Bake on ungreased cookie sheet in 350 degree oven
 for 12-15 minutes
or until light golden brown.

My Little Helper Loads up the Walnuts.
Everyone Home Should Have a  Recipe Book
Just for Cookies
 Delicious topped with a sweet dusting of powdered confectioner's sugar. My oldest son loves the taste of these cookies with a tall glass of milk or hot cocoa but, ironicaly, prefers them with the half walnuts removed.

Always helpful, my thirteen-year-old son held these silk poinsettias in place while I took the photo.  Chip proof and lightweight, my red lucite serving tray  is one of my favorites. With the half-walnut on top, these cookies are tempting and elegant.

Timesaver:  If you want to bake ahead, these cookies freeze beautifully in freezer-safe Tupperware.

Economizing Key: If you don't have enough walnuts, you can top the remaining cookies with pecan halves instead. In fact, this shortbread recipe can be made by completely replacing walnuts with pecans. If you don't have another cookie to pair these with, place dried apricots here and there in between the cookies. Fruit and nuts - good combo.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Cooking with Laura: Chicken Soup

There's nothing like homemade chicken soup on a cold day, and no better medicine for a cold.  Since everyone in my family has a cold, I put up a delicious pot of chicken soup.  After the soup has been cooking for a while, the house fills with the soothing aroma of chicken soup.  It is delicious and healthy and really makes your cold feel better.  It is also easy to prepare and a one-pot meal so clean up is easy, too.  I like to cook mine in my large All-Clad pot.  

I rinsed five chicken quarters and place in pot with two quarts of College Inn chicken broth and two quarts of water.  I added a large Vidalia onion, peeled and quartered, and about two cups of baby carrots.  The baby carrots are easy to use because you don't have to peel them or chop them.  Also add about four stalks of celery, cleaned and cut into large pieces.  Add salt and pepper to taste, and a sprig of fresh dill if you have it.  Bring to a boil, and then simmer for an hour and a half.  Then add 1/2 lb. of small noodles and cook in the soup until the noodles are done - about 6 minutes for thin noodles.  You can add pastina or tubettini or another small pasta.

When the soup is done, remove the chicken, discard the skin, and take the chicken off the bone.  Serve soup with chicken slices in it or serve chicken on the side or in sandwiches. 


Economizing Key: Peel remaining chicken off of the bones. Make a refreshing, healthful chicken salad for lunch the next day, according to what's available in your refrigerator.  Take out your cutting board and add:  finely chopped celery and/or carrots, diced apples and/or pears, seedless grapes cut in halves, fresh lemon juice, a little mayo, a splash of balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper to taste. If you happen to have shelled walnuts, you may want to add small pieces of the walnuts as well for an added flavor and crunch.

Delicious served as a scoop on top of a bed of your favorite lettuce or as a sandwich in a toasted sweet roll knot, this homemade chicken salad is easy-to-make with what's handy in your refrigerator.

Our Favorite Things: The Warmth & Beauty of Christmas

Living Room: The place where we gather to open birthday and Christmas gifts and a place where we can sit quietly and think, our living room is a heart of our home. The mantle reflects the changing seasons and occasions.

Living Room Mantle - a Heart of Our Home

No matter how blustery it gets outdoors, it's warm inside a home that is decorated for Christmas. Bless all who live, visit, and gather here. 

Our Christmas tree holds a treasury of sentimental ornaments.  My favorites include an elegant collection of Lenox ornaments, a fun grouping of pewter and wooden Disney ornaments ... each with a memory of gift-giver or occasion attached. 

Symbolic of our three son-shines, many ornaments are grouped in threes: 3 Pottery Barn snowflakes, 3 silver stars, 3 snowmen, 3 Lenox crystal birds, 3 crystal angels, 3 white doves, 3 jovial red Santas ...  and assorted ones the boys made in preschool. When the children have their own homes one day, each will have an ornament to take for his tree to match those of his brothers.

 Each ornament is unique and treasured.  Over the years, though, Lenox and Pottery Barn ornaments have become some of my very favorites. Pottery Barn's mercury glass collections of ornaments add shimmer and sparkle to any tree.

~ Linda


Thursday, December 2, 2010

Decorating: At Home Still-Life

"Surround yourself with the beautiful" my mother has always told me.  Of course, what is beautiful for one might not be so lovely to look at for another.  An interior decorating and antiques enthusiast, my mother whimsically and ethereally accents her home with a variety of sculptural cherubs: cherubs as lamps, as bookends, wooden cherubs in flight atop doorways, a pedestal cherub holding a large shell above her head ... used as soap holders in the bathroom.
Statuary of little boys appeals most to me, as I have three wonderful sons (my "son-shines"); two are teenagers (excuse the cliche, but Wow, time flies!), one a vivacious and joyful preschooler.

34 degrees today in brisk December, but - every time I pass by it in my center foyer - this grouping of garden statuary and vibrant silk flowers cheerfully reminds me of the warm, bright spring days that are soon to be ours again.  The bronze boy holds a turtle; the beige boy, a butterfly. The garden outdoors is inside our winter home . 

Given to my husband and I last Christmas from our siblings, my favorite is the largest statue. I call it "the three brothers." The littlest one (at left) represents our delicious three year old.

Beautiful statuary and silks can be found at nurseries (LI's Martin Viette is a treasure trove in this regard) and at Michael's craft stores (keep your eyes peeled for their 50% off coupons). Warm up winter by bringing in spring - silk florals and garden statuary can add spirit-lifting accents to your home.

~ Linda

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Linda's Favorite Things - 2 & 3 tier servers

Filled with clementines (one of my boys' favorites!), this 2-tier wire server is so simple, I wonder why it is so pleasing to the eye for me? On Christmas Eve, I will fill it with sweet, colorful mini Forelle pears (in season October through March) and mini "Lady apples" as a centerpiece for the dessert table. At a breakfast buffet, it makes an adorable holder for muffins.
I have seen similar wire servers at Pier 1 imports and Pottery Barn. Another very appealing aspect of their beauty is their practicality: affordable, lightweight, non-chipping, and virtually unbreakable.
Particularly elegant with its scroll design and triple-serving feature (wish I had this one), I love this one pictured at top left. It has an easy carry handle that makes serving and clean up easier.

Cooking with Linda

Oven-baked tilapia is a healtfhul crowd-pleaser in my kitchen.  Top loins with diced carrots, celery, vidalia onion, quartered tomatoes, and capers once you have tossed them in extra virgin olive oil, ground ginger, salt and fresh lemon juice.

Bake in oven-safe clay baking pans, which are my favorite for keeping foods moist and hot when serving, in a preheated 375 degrees oven for about 30 minutes until loins are translucent-whitish and vegetables are tender. Serve with organic brown rice seasoned with chicken bouillion.