Monday, December 30, 2013

Homemade Peanut Butter Cups

These were for Mike this Christmas, and here I digress to note that I should make at least one dessert at Christmas that I myself am excited about--sugar cookies, gingerbread, and peanut butter cups are fun to make, but they don't thrill me--because just five days after the holiday, I had nothing sweet to eat around here until tonight when Mike bought me a box of Swiss cake rolls.  And one, especially one who has a sweet tooth and enjoys baking, should have something homemade to her liking on-hand less than a week after Christmas, I say.  And that reminds me that about seven years ago when I worked in a bakery, a little old lady asked me a question about the pies, so I walked with her over to the display case to show her what we had.  She mentioned lemon meringue, and I told her that we had one but that it was sugar-free.  "Oh no," she said.  "I've got to have sugar.  I love my sweets."  And then she poked me in the belly and added, "I guesss you do too!"  She was so pleasant and good-intentioned, I couldn't help but laugh--although:  WOW!--and I've remembered that belly-poke every time I've referred to my sweet tooth since then.  Ahhh, people!  Ya gotta love 'em. 

These peanut butter cups turned out quite cute, if I may say so.  These are the cupcake liners Aunt Laurie sent in our Christmas tin this year, and I love them so much.  She had filled the tin with kitchen-related things in this (my favorite) shade of green, and after I trimmed a little off the tops of these papers, they were the perfect depth for peanut butter cups.  If I were giving these as a gift, I'd double the liners/papers so the chocolate and no-stick spray wouldn't shine through and discolor them the way they did in places here, but this is the first time I'd used wrappers/made them as cups instead of just shaping them into chocolate-covered peanut butter items (Easter eggs, Valentine hearts, etc.), so live and learn.  

The first time I made these, I used a slightly different recipe and shaped them into footballs for a Super Bowl party, piping lacing onto their tops.  
It was more fun this time with the cupcake wrappers since it's the papers' folds that give them the brand-name peanut butter cup look.  The recipe I used for these is based on this "Top Secret" one.  I made a few changes based on the comments and past experience:  I used the all-natural (oil-on-the-top) reduced-fat peanut butter, I added an extra pinch of salt, I used close to a cup of powdered sugar, I sprayed the cupcake liners, and I only waited maybe ten minutes after the chocolate base/side layer had cooled before adding the flattened-out ball of the peanut butter mixture to it (and maybe another ten after spooning the chocolate top layer over the peanut butter ball/middle).  These set up really fast.  It was cold the night I made this batch, so I just let the cups chill beside an open window instead of bothering with the fridge or freezer.  This will probably be another Christmas tradition for us now, so it's nice that it's an easy and inexpensive (only four ingredients) recipe. 
Mike's the peanut butter-lover in this household, and he thinks these are just like the brand name peanut butter cups--"or better"--so there you go.  I promise not to poke your belly if you eat too many.  ;)  

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Christmas is a time of Do You Remember? Of family jokes. Of family rituals. Sometimes a little sadness--but always love. ~ Pam Brown

A couple of the funniest Christmastime moments this week were jokes between me and my younger brother.  He was born when I was five, so you can imagine how goofy and fun Christmas was for us as kids.  One of the things we laughed at most this time of year when we were younger was the scene from the "Ralphie and the BB gun" (A Christmas Story) movie in which Ralphie finally has his big moment with Santa Claus and Santa turns out to be the wild-eyed super-scary man pictured above.  :)  That screenshot, and the movie dialogue below, depict this scene that made us howl with laughter growing up.  When I woke up Christmas morning, TBS's all-day movie marathon of the movie was the first holiday-related program I found on TV, and guess which scene was up?  I took a picture and sent it to Brian, who later responded. . . .
A couple days before, he reminded me of "our line" below.  We thought we were so clever when we thought of this as kids, and I'm sure we drove our parents and older brother crazy with it.  On December 23rd:  "Tomorrow we can say 'Tomorrow is Christmas!'"  Yessssssss--except we would start this the week before as kids.  "Tomorrow we can say, 'Tomorrow we can say, tomorrow we can say, tomorrow we can say, TOMORROW is Christmas!"  Ay!  :)
The shared silliness is year-round, of course, but these were two of my favorite moments this week.  

Friday, December 27, 2013

Our First Three Christmas Breakfasts

I've  never been a breakfast person--I eat it every day, but I prefer to heat up some soup or make a sandwich instead of eating more typical breakfast foods, and I think my two-and-a-half-year stint as a breakfast cook permanently wiped out any fondness I ever could have found for the smells of bacon, eggs, or waffles--but the Christmas breakfast Mike and I share has become one of my favorite parts of the holiday.  It has been egg casserole and cinnamon rolls every year, and while the food is good (she says modestly), it is the table-setting and actual sharing of it that I love the most.  We enjoy a Christmas Eve dinner and a Christmas evening dinner too, but somehow it's our Christmas breakfasts that delight me. 
This was Mike's and my third Christmas in this apartment, and our third as a married couple.  I remember Dad asking me on the phone last Christmas what we'd had for breakfast, and I responded, "Egg casserole and cinnamon rolls--It's our tradition" and then laughing at that with him because it had been only the second Christmas Mike and I had done that.  'Quite a tradition!  :)  Our Christmas meal together before we married was always a belated supper  after we'd both returned from our parents' homes--Christmas 2011 was the first time we shared Christmas Eve, Christmas morning, and Christmas dinner together.  And it's sweet to be able to do that.  I had actually been scheduled to work this Christmas, but a coworker covered it for me, picking up some holiday overtime for herself, and Mike and I were quite grateful.  (I burst into tears when she said she would work it for me, I was that surprised and relieved.)  Our holiday together was extra-special this year, then, since we hadn't known until last week that we would, in fact, be together for it.  And this year's breakfast was sunny and sweet just like the two before it.
2011's breakfast table was in aqua with most everything on it a gift from loved ones.  The knit-look aqua mugs were from my mom.  The candlesticks too.  The lace snowflake tablecloth was a Christmas gift from my younger brother in 2010 and is now part of the tradition. 
Last year's breakfast table was pink.  The candles, trees, deer, house, church, and other little ornaments were all from Mom, Aunt Laurie, and (one of their younger sisters) Aunt Heidi. 
And this year's table was glowing and sunshiney, although that was an as-I-woke-up-Christmas-morning decision.  The yellow under the lace tablecloth was the yellow gingham bedspread I'd used on the table this past Easter.  It looked soft and mellow with the lace over it, which was nice.  While Mike slept in, I gathered the dishes from the cupboard and the ornaments off our tree that were yellow and cream, picked a couple yellow star sugar cookies for our plates out of the tin, and even found a lion and lamb amongst Stuffed's toys.    (Martha Stewart would shake her head.  That's okay.) 
The snowflake spreader was on Christmas clearance at Walgreens (drugstore) years ago for fifty cents or so.  :)  The trees and houses and ornaments and casserole dish were all gifts. 
Mom found me the brown deer at the flea market this fall and gave it to me last week.  The glass candle dish was the one Aunt Laurie had tucked into our cookie tin this Christmas. 
And now it is back to work for me after a blissful six days off.  I am blessed beyond measure. 
And it was absolutely a merry little Christmas. 

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Aunt Laurie, Queen of Curling Ribbon

Aunt Laurie's birthday is today.  I mailed her a small package Saturday afternoon, and according to the postal tracking, it arrived Christmas Eve, just as I'd hoped it would.  "Late-breaking" Christmas Eve gifts are especially fun, I think, although Mom, Dad, and I still laugh about the fact that a few Christmas Eves ago, the mail carrier stomped through the snow up to my parents' door and delivered a package that turned out to be a box of vitamins my dad had ordered.  Boo.  Booooo.  :)  Aunt Laurie and my mom always ship their Christmas gifts to each other--and include in each other's boxes a few birthday gifts too, since Aunt Laurie's birthday comes right after Christmas and Mom's is the first week of January--and receiving and unwrapping Aunt Laurie's Christmas box every year has been one of my favorite parts of the holiday for as long as I can remember.  Her Christmas package had arrived at my parents' house for the holiday the same day I did this year, December 16th, and my mom let me be the one to open it when I got in that night.   
My dear aunt understands the power of presentation.  Receiving one of her gifts is an "Oooh!  Ahhhhh" experience.  (This goes for not only Christmas gifts, but also Easter baskets and presents for showers, birthdays, and "anytime.")  Better than anyone else I know, Aunt Laurie wraps and package her offerings in ways that add to the gaiety and sweetness of an occasion.  The gifts our families exchange are not extravagant, but opening gifts from her makes us feel rich just the same because she puts such care into their wrappings.  A loaf of homemade bread will arrive wrapped in a checkered tea towel with a  sprig of Holly tucked inside the folds of fabric.  A snowflake-shaped spatula will be tied with colorful ribbon to a pouch of pancake mix and come packaged in an oven mitt.  Her signature sprinkled Christmas cookies are almost always displayed in clear-topped containers--this year's cookies were inside shallow plastic-lidded boxes that Christmas cards had originally been sold in--that are then finished with curling ribbon.  
Always, curling ribbon!  Probably because my mom used those shiny peel-and-stick bows, Aunt Laurie's elaborate curling ribbon bows and wraps made a big impression on me as a kid.  They always made everything seem more cheerful.  She uses curling ribbon not only to make bows, but also to keep multiple little gifts for one recipient held together, and she is known for attaching ornaments and other package tie-ons with it, as well. 
And the ornaments and tie-ons she finds just add to the fun. Last year was the first year I took the time--and/or started my Christmas preparations early enough--to search a few local thrift shops to find something appropriate to attach to each of my presents given to family, and I concluded from my searches that Aunt Laurie surely looks for these tiny items all year long.  Things like Holly and berry sprigs can be found, especially on-sale, for pennies at craft stores on holiday clearance-- 
--but other things, like a miniature stuffed dog for my nephew--
--likely appear in thrift shops for ten or twenty-five or fifty cents all year.  A single plastic tea cup from a child's toy tea set?  Tied with curling ribbon onto a prettily-wrapped box containing a vintage tea cup, mismatched vintage saucer, and some of my mom's favorite tea bags.  Holiday-themed pens or pencils taped onto coloring and puzzle books for my older niece and nephew.   "My" embellishments this Christmas were the sprig of red and white berries and the glittery snowflake ornament, both now on the tree.  
The round tin below has a Rite Aid (drugstore) label on the bottom, and if I'd seen it there this year, I probably would have picked it out for myself, I love it so much.  (This was part of our gift from her this year.  The fabric under the tin's lid is a green plaid dish towel, and under it was a package of green cupcake or muffin papers, a green candle, and a vintage candle pedestal.  See?  So simple, but so sweet.)  Aunt Laurie has a knack for finding great tins and hat boxes and baskets to use as gift containers too.  The gifts in the first photo at the top of this post were all kitchen/dining-related and had been layered into a mixing bowl for my mom.  When I once again squealed to Mom over this thoughtfulness this Christmas and repeated for the umpteenth time that I really want my own gifts for others to be packaged this cleverly, she understood but reminded me that her older sister has her entire attic set up year-round as a crafting/gift-wrapping area so enjoys more storage space than most people do.  That's true.  I shop year-round for Christmas gifts but lack a single place to keep them all til the holiday--and I surely lack space for an assortment of ribbons, laces, tapes, tissues, and tie-ons, to boot--so my own preparations are, so far, lacking the organization Aunt Laurie's got going for her.  I keep a few rolls of gift wrap in a tall wire basket, and I usually have a few stick-on bows and a roll or two of curling ribbon on-hand, but I have nothing like Aunt Laurie's set-up here.  However she manages it, the gifts she creates are lovely.  
Even the stickers she adorns the outside of her boxes with are adorable.  The "Christmas long johns" stickers she used on her package for my family this year-- 
 --matched some of the sheets of tissue paper inside, and we all got a laugh out of the design.  Sometimes she'll layer sheets of tissue between layers of presents.  One of the fun things about her packages--and why I've always loved opening them--is that she uses so many different wrapping paper styles, tissue paper colors, and tie-ons that each person's gift is somehow unique, even on the outside, from everyone else's.  Sometimes a tiny container of cookie-decorating sprinkles or colored sugars will simply have a to/from label stuck to it.  Sometimes a pair of gloves for my dad or brothers will contain a candy cane.  The "Ooh!  Ahh!" comes from slicing open the cardboard and seeing the sea of assorted colors and textures and patterns, truly Christmas-in-a-Box. 
The beautiful gift-wrapping Aunt Laurie is famous for in our family is one of the skills I most want to learn from her.  I think I get a tiiiiiny bit closer each year, but I'm not there yet, and I'm certainly not organized about it.  If someday my nieces and nephew appreciate looking at--not just unwrapping, you see, but even just looking at--the gifts I send them the way I've always anticipated seeing Aunt Laurie's, I'll know I got it right.  The little package I sent to her and her family last Saturday was colorful and sweet in its way, but I had waited too long/was too disorganized, so while the modest gifts inside were things she, her husband, and their son will enjoy--a Christmas-themed gnome tin filled with peanut butter cups, a small aqua vase for her aqua dining room, a few yards of green floral fabric, an album of family photos, a birthday card that "looks like her," prints of some of my Christmas/mantel decorating with notes on the backs, some green floral fabric, and a package of stickers she had admired before but hadn't been able to find locally--the way I wrapped them was more slap-dash than I had wished:  No ornaments or tiny "extras" tied to the presents, no pretty tissue paper to cushion it all, and no variety in the gift wrap.  But next year!  Next Christmas!  Because I really want this to be one of  the things I learn from Aunt Laurie.  And I want this to be the year I make a real effort to get better at it, although that will mean periodically making trips to the craft store for ribbons and pretty wrapping supplies, frequenting thrift shops throughout the year--instead of in one frantic December visit to search for ornaments and tie-ons--and then finding room here to store it all.  Some would say this is trivial--"Gee, Val, what a goal for the new year"--but it really isn't trivial at all.  Nothing that makes your loved ones feel more loved is trivial. 
 "There is something about receiving a beautifully wrapped gift 
that touches the child in all of us."  
~  Christine Fritsch

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

I say to myself that I shall try to make my life like an open fireplace, so that people may be warmed and cheered by it and so go out themselves to warm and cheer. ~ George Matthew Adams

Christmas Eve!  My favorite day of the whole year.    It's our first Christmas with the mantel, and while the new-old (vintage, from eBay a couple months ago) tree turned out a bit busier-looking than the one I'd had in mind--I'd wanted just a string of little clip-on candle lights, gingerbread men, and pink hearts, simple and pink and sweet--it all came together.  I took some time a few weeks ago to re-sew my pink gingham stocking since it had never been really stocking-shaped and its size hadn't matched Mike's Yankees one.  'Better now.  'Had to boost the supposed-to-be-five-feet-tall tree up onto a tray table to make it taller than the mantel.  Then had to secure the tree to the table with a ten-pound weight so it would stop pitching forward.  And most of the time, the lowest branches are covered with grocery store bags because a certain four-legged someone keeps trying to chew them.  It's always something with our Christmas trees--the last two years saw our old one tethered to the wall with a bungee cord--but again, it came together. 
That's the still-unfinished wing chair in the foreground.  I stopped working on it this fall so my money would go toward Christmas and not toward fabric and upholstery trims for awhile, but soon, I'll start it again.  When it's done, it will be sitting where the tree is now.    When I first decorated the tree and mantel, I added the little wreath (below) between our stockings, but I took it down last night.  It seems too busy with it up.  A string of heart-shaped lights is still on my list for the mantel, but that didn't happen in time for Christmas.  And now that I look at these pictures, I see that the little "love" sign inside the wreath would likely be perfect on its own between the stockings. The little Garfield under the tree is actually Stuffed's stocking.  Garfield is holding a tiny stocking labeled "Stuff it!" and we fill it with cat treats and/or a toy.  This year, a toy.  (My mom sent him a little pouch of treats.)   
And the faux fire is one I painted a few weeks ago.  I had been meaning to do this for awhile, and finally, on a day off, I set up bowls of acrylic paints, gold glitter nail polish left over from a Pirates game, brushes, and a big square of oilcloth cut from the roll I'd used for the cupboards, turned on About a Boy to play in the background while I painted, and began building a fire. 
I used two thumbtacks to hang it inside the mantel.  I might prefer the way the painting looked about six photos into the project--a much simpler log fire at that point--but I'm not sure.  It will do for this year. 
The angel that serves as our tree-topper was a gift from my best friend Sommer's mom eighteen years ago toward the end of my first semester of college.  The flowers that had been in its arms were getting droopy, so this Christmas, it's holding a big heart instead. This angel touches me even more now than when I first received it.  Betty had sent it to my dorm address along with a note and another little gift in a prettily-decorated shoebox.  That was around/right before Christmas 1995, about nine months after Sommer had died.  The Christmas before that, Christmas 1994, Sommer was alive and well--she would die in a car accident a few months later--and it was actually a joke between us that everyone was giving me angel-related gifts that year.  That Christmas, I received a cassette tape of "music of the angels" from my aunt Laurie, an angel poster from my parents, angel ornaments, angel figurines, etc. and Sommer and I laughed between ourselves about it because angels actually scared me--or at least, they kind of freaked me out a bit.  They always look like they're standing (or floating) stock-still, they usually appear expressionless and neither male nor female,  something about their wings. . . .They just creeped me out.  No one else knew that, I guess, so it was angel-after-angel that Christmas, but it was strange to receive sooooooo many and from soooooo many different people all during one holiday.  Over Christmas vacation from high school that year, surrounded in my bedroom by all these angel gifts, I made myself a mix tape.  For reasons I didn't even understand, I labeled one side of the tape "Songs to Comfort Me" and made an instrumental piece from my new "music of the angels" gift the first song on it.  Nine weeks later, Sommer died--and that tape was the only music I listened to those first couple months, and the angels all suddenly made sense, like they were part of a small army that had been sent ahead of time to help lift me up.  (In a way, of course, that only made all these angels even stranger and more mysterious to me, but a good-strange and a comforting-mysterious now, at least.)  Betty didn't know any of that when she made me my "Sommer angel" later that year, though, which made it all the more meaningful.   
 Mike's Spider-Man holds the tiny sign my friend Madai sent years ago.  Love is all around. 
'Now off to bake sugar cookies for today, peanut butter fudge for tonight, cinnamon rolls for tomorrow, and to re-do my to-do list one last time pre-holiday.  And to call my parents.    I love imagining what everyone's up to today, and images of you guys and my other loved ones keep coming to mind.  Merry Christmas to you all. 

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Who can be insensible to the outpourings of good feeling, and the honest interchange of affectionate attachment which abound at this season of the year. ~ Charles Dickens

One of the sweet things about Christmas is seeing the people you love being treated kindly by others.  One of Mike's coworkers gifted him with this box of fudge last week, leaving it on his desk as a surprise.  I love her drawing of him and that she did the to/from label this way.  It added some joy to his day and his Christmas, and thus, to mine too. 

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Bianca's First ~Merry Early Christmas~

One of the highlights of Tuesday's early Christmas with my family was meeting my newest niece and finally giving her and her parents the little baby gifts and Christmas gifts I'd been collecting the past few months.  Ah, but let's back up long enough to acknowledge that the photo above of her is obviously one of the sweetest baby pictures ever.    The bright shining eyes!  The tiny fist!  The gnome-ish hat!  Bianca wins the family prize for Prettiest Eyes, I daresay.  My younger brother emailed the picture to me a few weeks ago, and I knew as soon as he mentioned it was his favorite oneof all time that it would need to be made into a Christmas gift.  :)  I had photo mugs made for him and his wife. 
I found the "sugar and spice" tin at a thrift shop over the summer and filled it with a onesie and Cardinals baseball-themed gifts for her and her Redbird-loving parents:  Pink Cardinals pacifiers, a Cardinals ABC book, and a Cardinals knit hat.  Fun finds, all of them, and we all laughed as my brother and his wife looked at everything Tuesday evening.  My lifelong Pirates-fan dad dryly commented, "Well, if that's the way you want to raise your kid. . . ."  which makes me laugh again every time I remember it. 
Bianca slept through all the hilarity. 
Her first Christmas gifts from Aunt Val and Uncle Mike were clothes:  A pink bunny sleeper, a "My first Christmas" bodysuit, and a pink sleeper with a red Santa Claus print and attached Santa slippers.  :)  Bianca's the first baby in the family to be born during the holiday season, and that's made her arrival especially fun for us all. 
She slept through those gifts too, though. 
We all only briefly saw her eyes Tuesday night, so every picture from that night is a Sleeping Bianca shot. 
Late Wednesday afternoon, her mom sent me a picture of my finally-wide-awake niece in her pink Santa sleeper.  There are those shining eyes again.  I have to wonder when I see a baby this alert what she's thinking and what she'll be like in the years ahead. 
Merry First (Early) Christmas, Sweet Bee.