Thursday, December 24, 2015

Snowflake Cookies Tutorial

Snowflake Cookie Tutorial, 5

These might be my favorite Christmas cookie, though it's been a while since I made them! They look super fancy, but are easy to make. I think it took me about 15 minutes to cut the stencil and decorate the entire batch of cookies! Follow along with the steps below to make your own ~

1) Start with some plain sugar cookies. You can make them from scratch, slice & bake, or even just buy some pre-made. 

2) Follow my snowflake cutting tutorial to fold the paper for your stencil (through step 5). One you have it folded, hold the point to the center of a cookie and make a mark where the edge is. 

Snowflake Cookie Tutorial, 1

3) Follow the template below to draw your snowflake shape. Along one edge, draw a thin bar, ending just below that mark. Draw two angled bars coming off of that, about twice the thickness of the first bar. (You can see I made a little halfway mark on my bar to gauge the size) Below those, draw another angled line that goes all the way across. And then about an inch above your original mark, draw a line all the way across. 

Snowflake Cookie Tutorial, 2

4) Cut out your stencil along those lines, and it will look similar to this. Carefully erase your pencil lines before unfolding (optional).

Snowflake Cookie Tutorial, 3

5) Unfold your stencil and bend the folds in the opposite direction to help flatted it out. If you want it super flat you can iron it, but it is OK if it is a little wobbly.

6) Lay your stencil on top of a cookie and sprinkle cinnamon over the top. (If needed, you can hold it down a little, just try not to shift it.) Make sure you've filled in all of the little 'branches' before removing.

Snowflake Cookie Tutorial, 4

7) Carefully lift the stencil off of the cookie and dump the cinnamon from your stencil in a bowl. I like to quickly flip my cookie upside down over the bowl too, and then blow on the cookie with a quick 'puff' to remove the excess cinnamon. When you are done, you can pour the cinnamon from the bowl back into the shaker to use later. The cinnamon on the cookie will darken a bit as it sits.

Repeat on the rest of your cookies & you are done! I always seems like these shouldn't be so simple, like the stencil won't work for some reason, but after three+ batches I haven't had one cookie get messed up yet.

Snowflake Sugar Cookies

While I normally encourage experimentation with ingredients, on my first batch I tried making half with powdered sugar and kept inhaling it and choking every time I tried to eat one! Colored sugars may work, but are much larger & might need icing to stick. The cinnamon works wonderfully though, and gives the cookies a lovely Snickerdoodle flavor. Let me know if you give it a try!

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Our Decorated Gingerbread Houses

In the last post I shared how I assembled the base of these houses step-by-step and let them dry out a bit. Now for the fun part ~ the decorating!

My husband picked up a few candies from the store, like M&M's, gumdrops, butter mints, etc. I would have killed for some soft candy canes, but they were out! We also raided our candy basket, the baking supplies (sprinkles!), and we even used some cereal. Anything's up for grabs!

Here is Orson's house ~ 

12-15 Orson's house

We applied the icing for both of the kids, using these decorating bottles again. The kids showed us where to put the icing, then they chose & attached the candy. 

And Pandora's house. I could not get her to stay still! ~

12-15 Panda's house

When they were done we let them eat some of their house. Before we realized it, Panda had cleared off most of her candy!

Justin had the slightly broken house, but still managed to craft an awesome chimney, paved with M&Ms. I love the cookie shingled roof too! (Cookie Crisp cereal)

12-15 Justin's house, 1

And a nice, big back window ~

12-15 Justin's house, 2

I added a small covered porch on the front of mine ~

12-15 Tiffany's house, 1

The roof is shingled with Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal and I tried to add a little 'snow' along the edges. There is a sour gummy candy called "Rips" that is the perfect shape for the door, and I also cut up some to make shutters.

12-15 Tiffany's house, 2

On the back I made some stairs out of graham crackers & railing from Pringles Stix. I also stacked up some pink Good & Plenty 'logs'.

12-15 Tiffany's house, 3

This was my first time decorating a graham cracker house and it was a lot of fun. I think it needs to be a new Christmas tradition!

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Easy (Graham Cracker) Gingerbread House Assembly, Step-by-Step

We celebrated the first day of Christmas break by making some fun 'gingerbread' houses with the kiddos. They are pretty obsessed with candy, so they could not wait to start decorating! My kids are 2.5 and 5.5, so we went with small graham cracker houses and store bought frosting to keep things easy. 

'Gingerbread' house step-by-step, 12

Since my kids are little I made sure to assemble the houses early & let them dry out to become a little sturdier.  I had a little trouble assembling the first house, but felt like a pro by the fourth one, so I took step-by-step pictures to share the tips I learned along the way.

To apply the icing, I'm using these awesome cake decorating bottles I got for my birthday. Pastry bags have always felt super awkward to me, but these were easy to use!

1) To start, ice three edges of a cracker and place it on your plate (facing away from you). It's OK for the perforation to run horizontal or vertical, but make sure to place all of the crackers the same way. This will be the back of your house.

'Gingerbread' house step-by-step, 1

2) Ice the bottom edge of another cracker and place it to the right of the first one, against the outer edge. (You want the side crackers to be on the outside of the front & back or you will have trouble placing your roof later!)

'Gingerbread' house step-by-step, 2

3) Ice three edges again and place that cracker in the front (inside of the right cracker).

'Gingerbread' house step-by-step, 3

4) Ice the bottom edge of another cracker and finish off your four walls by placing this on the left, outside.

'Gingerbread' house step-by-step, 4

5) Now let's cut a triangle shape to hold our roof. This may differ a little based on the size of your crackers, so figure out your angle by holding a cracker from the bottom corner to the center line. Notice where it hits the center line, then choose a spot a little lower so that your room can overhang the edges a bit. The lower the spot, the bigger the overhang.

'Gingerbread' house step-by-step, 6

6) My cracker was about as tall as the top line of dots, so I chose to mark the height between the top two lines of dots. Using a serrated knife, saw a little to mark a line, and then connect that center spot to your bottom corners.

'Gingerbread' house step-by-step, 7

7) Now lightly saw through the cracker to create your triangle. You will need two for the house.

'Gingerbread' house step-by-step, 8

8) Before we attach our triangles, add a line of icing along the top of the side crackers. You'll be glad this is already done in a minute!

'Gingerbread' house step-by-step, 5

9) Ice all three sides of the triangles and balance them on the front and back. Don't worry if one falls in, just stick it back on there. 

'Gingerbread' house step-by-step, 9

10) Add a cracker for the roof. Remember that it will overhang the walls a bit, not rest on top of them. 

'Gingerbread' house step-by-step, 10

11) Add a line of icing along the roof top...

'Gingerbread' house step-by-step, 11

12) And slap the last cracker on there. If the roof is uneven (hangs lower on one side) you can shift & adjust them now. There will be some gaps between the roof and bottom of the triangle, so squeeze a little icing in there and you're done!  

'Gingerbread' house step-by-step, 12

If you get the chance to stop by Walmart or a craft store, I love Our Best Bites' suggestions of making royal icing (with meringue powder) to assemble the house & really cement it together, and to use cake rounds for the base. We built ours on paper plates and the rim made it hard to decorate the base of the house. Next time I think I'll try both of tips, but this year we had to make do with regular icing.

Even with buttercream, we only had one house try to fall apart ~ when I brought my son his, the first thing he did was pull his house off the plate! Daddy switched his house with Orson's and I patched the broken house a little, but it was a bit unsturdy after that. Kids are full of surprises!

I'll share our decorated houses in the next post!

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Low-cal Creamy Asian Peanut Dressing (14 calories per Tbsp.)

I have tried out about a dozen low calorie Asian style dressing recipes, and ended up tossing all of them and making up my own. I learned what ingredients and amounts I liked from the others and tweaked it until I came up with this yummy peanut dressing. PB2 helps give the dressing a peanutty flavor at a fraction of the calories, and is well worth buying for sauces & dressings.

Whenever I make a batch of this I label it "CRAP" (for CReamy Asian Peanut) to amuse myself. But it certainly does not taste crappy! If you are craving a sweet & creamy dressing, you'll love this one.

Low-cal Creamy Asian Peanut Dressing (14 calories per Tbsp.)

(For those of you counting calories, I've added the amount for each ingredient so you can easily make tweaks without having to re-calculate everything. Anything marked with an asterisk* may vary a lot based on what you buy, so make sure to compare your label.)

Creamy Asian Peanut Dressing  

2 Tbsp. PB2 (45)
1 Tbsp. Hellman's light mayo (35)
1/2 Tbsp. rice vinegar (8)
1 tsp. soy sauce (3)
1/2 tsp. minced garlic (0)
1 packet or 1/2 tsp. Splenda or Stevia (0)
1/4 tsp. grated ginger (0)

1/4 cup reduced fat buttermilk (28*)

Directions -
Stir together all of the ingredients except for the buttermilk. Add the buttermilk (you may want to do 1/2 at a time) and stir until well mixed.

Makes about 1/2 cup, 14 calories per Tbsp.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Low-cal Creamy Italian Dressing (15 calories per Tbsp.)

Over the last year I've played around with many different low calorie salad dressing recipes, tweaking existing recipes and making up my own. I now have a few that I love and make regularly, and it was high past time that I share them.

I thought I would start off by posting my current favorite: Creamy Italian. Rich and tangy, this dressing packs a lot of flavor! And at only 15 calories per Tbsp. (compared to 50+ for most store brands, even the low fat varieties!), you can load up your salad and still keep it light.

Low-cal Creamy Italian Dressing (15 cal/Tbsp.)

(For those of you counting calories, I've added the amount for each ingredient so you can easily make tweaks without having to re-calculate everything. Anything marked with an asterisk* may vary a lot based on what you buy, so make sure to compare your label.)

Creamy Italian Dressing (15 calories/Tbsp.)

2 Tbsp. Hellman's light mayo (70)
2 Tbsp. grated Parmesan (75)
2 tsp. vinegar (0)
1 tsp. lemon juice (2)

1/2 tsp. minced garlic (0)
1/2 tsp. dried parsley (0)
1/2 tsp. dried basil (1)
1/4 tsp. dried oregano (1)
1/4 tsp. black pepper (2)
1/4 tsp. salt (0)
1/8 tsp. red pepper flakes (1)

1/2 cup reduced fat buttermilk (56*)

Directions -
Stir together all of the ingredients except for the buttermilk. Add the buttermilk (you may want to do 1/2 at a time) and stir until well mixed.

Makes about 3/4 cup, 15 calories per Tbsp.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

5:2 Shirataki Pad Thai (203 calories)

Recently I talked about how to prepare tamarind paste for recipes. Now I can share the yummy Pad Thai that I made with it!

I posted a low-cal Cabbage Pad Thai on here before, but this time I wanted to see how Shirataki noodles would work in a stir-fry noodle dish. I've only used them in soups before, but I'm happy to say they worked just as well on their own! And since they have a chewy texture, similar to the rice noodles that are normally used in Pad Thai, I think they are perfect for this dish.

5:2 Shirataki Pad Thai (203 calories)

Shirataki Pad Thai

1 Tbsp. tamarind paste (40*)
2 tsp. lime juice (2)
2 tsp. soy sauce (7)
2 tsp. brown sugar (30)
1/2 tsp. Sriracha (3)

1 pack (7 oz.) shirataki noodles, rinsed well (0)

1/2 cup minced onion (30)
1 tsp. minced garlic (0)
3 oz. firm tofu, frozen then thawed & crumbled (or one scrambled egg, 70) - see notes below
5 oz. cooked, chopped chicken (170)

1 green onion, thinly sliced (5)
2/3 cups bean sprouts (15)
2 tsp. crushed dry-roasted peanuts (33)

1) Press softened tamarind through a strainer to remove pulp and get nice, smooth paste (see link above). In a small bowl or mug, mix together the tamarind paste, lime juice, soy sauce, brown sugar, and Sriracha. Set aside.

2) In a microwave safe bowl, add the noodles and cover with water. Microwave for 3 minutes and drain. Trim into 3" pieces (I like to lift some noodles up & snip off pieces with kitchen scissors).

3) Heat a large non-stick skillet over medium heat and add the minced onion and garlic. Cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the tofu and chicken and cook 1-2 minutes to warm through.

4) Add the noodles to the skillet and cover with the sauce. Stir everything together well and heat through. Divide between two plates and garnish with the green onions, bean sprouts, and crushed peanuts. Serves 2.

Calories - 203 for 1/2

5:2 Shirataki Pad Thai (203 calories)

Notes ~

Tofu - Frozen tofu has a firmer, meatier texture than regular. It also keeps for a long time in the freezer, so I always store leftovers there! If you aren't able to freeze it ahead of time for this recipe, just add it before the chicken and cook for a few minutes to dry it out a bit.

Egg - We tried this recipe both ways, with scrambled tofu or egg, and the difference was not really noticeable. Luckily the calories are the same too! If you'd like to use an egg instead, scramble it in a small non-stick pan and add it to the pan along with the chicken. (The top picture shows the dish with egg, and the one just above is with tofu)

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Pumpkin Rolls

Our family does holidays pot-luck style, and this year an email went around for everyone to tell what they wanted to bring. Turkey, stuffing, potatoes, green beans, multiple desserts... everything filled up quickly, and as I looked over the list I realized the only thing missing was bread. Well, if I'm going to bring bread, I'm at least going to make something pretty!

Last year for Halloween I made these pumpkin shaped dinner rolls from Beyond Kimchee. The rolls have a little bit of pumpkin mixed in for color, and are a little sweet. I remember they were tasty, but they definitely did not come out as cute or recognizable as I'd hoped. (these are the nicest ones on top) ~

Pumkin rolls

I decided to make pumpkins again, but debated if I should shape them the same way. I searched for pictures of pumpkin rolls, and the best ones I saw wrapped the dough with kitchen string. I also saw a tempting technique of wrapping & knotting a coil of dough to make the shape. But in the end I decided that I hadn't cut the slits deep enough last time, and wanted to try cutting them again.

The first step is mixing the dough and then letting it rise an hour. I actually had a little trouble with this because the dough started traveling up the beaters and wouldn't stay down. I've had it happen once or twice before, and it even gets past the beaters up inside the mixer! (A Google search says the speed might not have been high enough, or maybe it was the wrong attachment, or maybe no one knows why.) At this point it was mostly mixed anyway, so I just did a little hand kneading.

Dough traveling up beaters

Next you divide the dough in half, then cut each half into 16 pieces (the recipe said 15, but 16 makes more sense to me!). Roll each piece into a ball, flatten a little, then use a knife or kitchen scissors to cut 8 deep slits around the sides (almost to the center) and let rise another 45 minutes.

Pumpkin rolls, before

And then it's time to bake them, then add a pecan half for a stem at the end. My rolls turned out so much better this year with the deeper cuts!

Pumpkin rolls

After the first pan, I learned that I needed to reshape the rolls a little before baking. If one 'petal' was sticking out further than the others, or if the whole thing was shaped more like an oval, that should be pushed in a little to make a nice circular shape. Surprisingly, they don't magically turn into circles as they bake, haha.

I also found the recipe a little hard to follow. There is a step-by-step with pictures first, then a written recipe at the bottom. But some details are only in the top section and some only in the bottom, so you constantly have to scroll back & forth (past all of the pictures). If I make these again I'll definitely take a few progress shots and write up my own version. Otherwise the recipe is great!

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Cooking With Tamarind Paste

Pad Thai is my favorite Thai dish, and I can make a mean plate of it at home using pre-made Pad Thai sauce. A few times I've tried to make my own sauce, usually following an Americanized recipe with no tamarind paste, but the results were never quite as good. Recently I was working on a low-calorie version and decided it was time to figure out how to use tamarind after all!

Tamarind Block

You will usually find tamarind paste in a big block like this. The tamarind pods are all ground up, so even if it is labeled as "seedless", expect it to be full of tough fibers and the occasional seed.

To use it, break off about 2 times what you need for your recipe and cover it with hot water (I microwave it for 30 seconds) to soften. If the block is very hard, let it sit 15 minutes, or just a few minutes if it already seems pretty soft. 

Tamarind softened, not strained

Now you will need a strainer and something to scrape it with (I use a table knife). Put a small piece of tamarind (1 tsp?) on the strainer and press and scrape the tamarind back and forth. Turn the strainer over and you will see nice, soft paste has pushed through. Scrape the smooth paste off the back of the strainer and you can put it right in your measuring spoon. Once you feel like you've scraped all you can, dump out the hard fibers and get another chunk.

Smooth, strained tamarind paste

This process does take a little while, but by using tamarind I was able to make my best Pad Thai sauce by far. It is definitely worth the extra steps! You can store the leftover block wrapped with plastic wrap or a Ziplock bag in your pantry for a year or two, so it's easy to keep on hand.

Note ~ Sometimes you can find pre-strained paste in a jar, though I've heard it can often be watered down & not as tasty. I wasn't able to find any at my international market, so I haven't tried it myself. Jars of paste and tamarind juice should be stored in the fridge and don't keep as long.

Now I'm eager to find some more recipes using this tasty ingredient. Have you cooked with tamarind before?

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Meatball Sub Cups

Last time I shared my first failed attempt at these yummy Meatball Sub Cups. The second try went much better, though I tried garnishing  with cheese only and it rolled right off the frozen meatballs (gotta have the sauce!). By the third batch I'd worked out the kinks, and everyone agreed these are delicious!

Meatball Sub Cups (garnished)

Meatball Sub Cups

1 can crescent roll dough
4 oz. cream cheese, 1/3 less fat (Neufchatel cheese)
1 tsp. Italian seasoning
1/2 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
24 frozen meatballs (no need to thaw)
1/4 cup spaghetti sauce
More Italian seasoning, mozzarella, and sauce for garnish

1) Preheat oven to 375 F. Butter a mini muffin tin (or use cooking spray) & set aside.

2) Break the crescent roll dough up in to triangles, then cut/snip each triangle into thirds. (Just estimate! You can always snip off a little bit if one is larger and add to a smaller piece.)

Meatball Sub Cups, 1

Press the dough into the bottom and up the sides of each muffin cup.

Meatball Sub Cups, 2

3) Microwave the cream cheese for 1 minute to soften. Stir in the Italian seasoning and mozzarella. Fill each cup with 1 tsp. of the mixture (You will have a little leftover. I like to divide it between any cups that seem lower.)

Meatball Sub Cups, 3

4) Top the cheese mixture with 1/2 tsp. of spaghetti sauce and press a meatball down into each cup.

5) If you want to skip the garnish, the finished meatballs will look like these ~

Meatball Sub Cups (ungarnished)

Or you can top each with a small dab of sauce, a couple strands of shredded cheese, and a dash of Italian seasoning ~

Meatball Sub Cups (garnished)

Bake 15-18 minutes, until golden brown. Remove the cups from the tin while warm (they tend to stick when cool).

Tip ~ You can freeze the other half of the cream cheese

Monday, November 9, 2015

Meatball Sub Cups - Fail

Do you ever have those times when you're trying a new recipe, and your gut is telling you something's not right? I'm not usually one to follow a recipe to-the-letter, but a few months ago I made these Meatball Sub Cupcakes and decided to trust the directions, in spite of a few nagging doubts.

First, the recipe said to use regular sized muffin tins. The pictures show the bread hugging the sides of the meatball, and I was guessing the dough wasn't going to rise *that* much....

Meatball cups, fail!

Then it said to pour 2 Tablespoons of sauce over the top of each. That might not sound like a lot, but it was enough to drown these little cups. (Once again, in the recipe picture it looks like a dainty dab of sauce, maybe 1/4 tsp.)

Meatball cups, fail!

Nailed it! You really should take a look at the pretty recipe pictures to see what they were supposed to look like, haha.

I've made these cups a few times since then, switching to mini muffin tins and tweaking the recipe as I would normally do. Next time I'll post my new updated recipe, but first I wanted to share these disastrous pictures for us to giggle over.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Halloween Costumes, 2015

For Halloween this year my 2-year-old wanted to dress as Daniel Tiger (from PBS) and my 5-year-old wanted to dress like a pickle!

Trick or Treating '15, 4

I worked on Pandora's costume first. She chose her costume early, so I was able to pick up a matching red jacket at a consignment sale & removed a logo from its chest. Then I found these cute tiger ears and tail cheap on Amazon (the picture is totally wrong), and after giving up trying to find orange pants in a store, I bought a pair on eBay.

Unfortunately the brownish ears/tail and the bright sherbert orange pants totally clashed!

Costume leggings, before

I had an old pack of brown fabric dye and used a tiny bit to turn the pants into more of a rusty orange. The color change isn't very accurate here, but you get the idea! Then I cut some rounded stripes out of dark brown felt & glued them on with white school glue so we can remove them and use them as normal pants after Halloween.

Costume leggings, after

Next up was the shoes! I always keep my kinds in velcro shoes, so I didn't really want to spend a lot on lace-up costume shoes she'd only wear for a few hours. Then I remembered this pair of red shoes a parent from Orson's school handed down to us... she kept forgetting to bring them, and by the time she did, the dog had chewed up one! I wasn't really sure why she bothered after that, but we'd been using them for dirty outdoor play. In the end they ended up being the perfect base for Daniel Tiger sneakers!

Daniel Tiger shoes, 1

First I cut some tongues to size out of red felt & hot glued them on (and chopped off the 'Toms' tag) ~

Daniel Tiger shoes, 2

Then I covered the fronts in white felt. I glued the line across the top first, then folded it down and trimmed & glued it along the bottom edge ~

Daniel Tiger shoes, 3

Daniel's laces are lines rather than X's, so that made things easy. I bought a cheap pair of shoe laces and tied them in bows at the end. Then I chopped them off wider than the tongue, folded the ends under, and glued them down ~

Daniel Tiger shoes, 4

Next I needed to do a little painting. See how grungy the bottom edge looks against the white toes?

Daniel Tiger shoes, 5

I used some craft paint to paint over the bottom edge, then watered down some red paint & went over any of the exposed shoe to brighten the red a little too. The white toes ended up getting a little pilly after the first wear, so I ended up painting over the white felt too, for a little protection. I swear I took a photo of the finished shoes, but never found one, so you'll have to admire them from afar ~

Dancy party, costume     Daniel Tiger

Now Orson's costume gave us some problems! First he said he wanted to be a monster or a pickle, then he decided on a "monster pickle"! Once again I could find no green pants in a store, so I finally found a matching sweat shirt and sweat pants online. Then we took him to the costume shop to find a monster mask, and he really wanted a Hulk mask, which was the perfect green monster in his mind. We said we couldn't buy that one or else everyone would think he was the Hulk though, and after that he was pretty sulky about the whole thing and said he just wanted to be a pickle.

Meanwhile I had already ordered a sweat suit which, even with a few green dots, was going to look nothing like a pickle! I was feeling like a pretty rotten mom until I found this giant inflatable pickle, which I thought would help things a little ~

And then, right before heading to the craft store for some green felt, I had a great idea for a pickle hat. My sewing machine has been out of commission for a few years, but I knew I could hot glue this one! For the hat I just measured how big I wanted the opening for the face, and how far above and below I wanted it to fall, as well as the width. I drew it out on some fleece with a Sharpie, cut it out and the fit was just right! Orson insisted there needed to be a stem, which was a good call. I stuffed the top of the hat with two plastic grocery bags, then I cut out two sizes of circles from some bright green felt and used school glue again to attach them all over.

Here he is with the inflatable pickle, which we ended up ditching after a few houses, of course. With the hat we really didn't need him though! ~

Trick or Treating '15, 3

Both kids loved their costumes, and I was pretty pleased they picked something other than the normal Elsa and superhero. (Pandora loves Elsa, but I saw a *lot* of them this year!) And of course they had a great time Trick or Treat-ing!

Trick or Treating '15, 1