Essence of Christmas

essence of christmas

I used to throw an annual cookie exchange and would put together a little party favor for the guests. One year I gave each friend a bag containing the “Essence of Christmas”. This is something my mom always had simmering on the stovetop at our house during the holiday season; it makes your whole house smell like Christmas. It is easy to make in big batches, and if you are already in cocoa kit or rosemary nut production, you should have a large supply of clear bags and labels– perfect for packaging these goodies. Share with neighbors, teachers, co-workers, or bring as a hostess gift to parties.

essence of christmas close up

Ingredients

  • 1 t. cloves
  • 4-5 juniper berries (can be hard to find, Whole Foods usually has these with the bulk spices from Thanksgiving to Christmas)
  • 1 orange (navel oranges– cannot use clementines or tangerines)
  • 3-4 bay leaves
  • 2-3 cinnamon sticks

Directions

  • Slice orange and add slices with spices to a pot with 4-5 cups of water. Simmer on the stove to emit a wonderful Christmas fragrance. Refill water as necessary.

The Label

  • Include the directions listed above along with a little holiday message.

essence of christmas label

Labor Day Potluck

As predicted in my 4th of July Party post, our neighborhood group gathered together again for a potluck dinner in honor of the Labor Day holiday. We did not have family relay races or a bike parade this time, but our activities coordinator and fab friend, Jackie, did set up a tie dye table for the children. I have not tie dyed a t-shirt since I went to summer camp as a kid. I had forgotten how much fun the reveal is when you finally release the shirt from its rubberband prison.

      

The Activity: Ms. Jackie set up a low table and hung a clothesline. She provided t-shirts, Rit dye, a big tub of rubberbands, and brief instructions. After the kids tied up the t-shirt, Jackie and one assistant handled the dying, so the mess stayed contained. The shirts looked great!

The Snacks: I provided a Sun Dried Tomato Dip (thank you Ina Garten) that is great in warm weather. My favorite veggie for this dip is sugar snap peas, but all the standard raw vegetables work well. I also like pita chips and Snyder’s Dipping Sticks pretzels.

The Dinner: Rather than hamburgers and hot dogs, the group put together a fish taco bar. One neighbor fried up hush puppies and shrimp on site. We  had yellow rice, black beans, and a vinegar-y slaw to go with the tacos. Since we live in South Carolina, it is easy to get good fresh fish. If you can too, try a fish taco bar some time.

Anybody else have a food idea for a neighborhood get together that is different from the typical grilled hamburgers and hot dogs?

A 5-Star Thank You Note

I am a little bit of a thank you note snob. When we give a gift at a children’s birthday party, I want to get a thank you note because I want confirmation that my gift made it to the birthday girl or boy. I am never sure what happens to our gift after I drop my child at the mega bounce house party and leave the present in the big wagon-o-gifts that is supposed to make it out to the birthday child’s car. The thank you note is the only way I know our friend has the gift in his/her possession.

After my kids receive gifts at their birthday party, I work really hard to make sure my children write thank you notes in a timely manner. When they were littler, I wrote the notes on their behalf and had them draw a picture, sign their name, or add some sort of scribble.

After the party is over, getting my children to write these thank you notes is a chore. One fab friend allowed her daughter to only open 2-3 gifts after her birthday party. The child could not open any more gifts until she completed thank you notes for the first few gifts. My friend said it worked like a charm until they got to the last few gifts. At that point, almost all of the thank you notes were complete, so it was not such a monumental task.

Since we just hosted a Star Wars birthday sleepover, my son has a few thank you notes to write. I started thinking a little about the whole thank you note process and developed a 5-star thank you note classification system. Now, depending on the situation, a 2-star thank you might be totally appropriate. Ultimately, I don’t care if I get a 1-star thank you– I just like knowing that the gift was received and acknowledged.

It would make me feel better to know that someone out there takes their thank you note writing as seriously as I do. Is it important for you to get a thank you note after giving a gift, and do you have any tips for making the thank you note writing process a little easier?

5-Star Rating

A handwritten note that is delivered via snail mail. It has personal comments and explains why the person who received the gift appreciates it. The thank you note is completed within 2-3 weeks. If you have personalized stationery, you just bumped your thank you note into a whole separate thank you note domain.

4-Star Rating

A partially handwritten note that is delivered via snail mail. It may be one of those fill in the blank kind of cards that are great for younger children who are just learning to write. It specifically names the gift that was given. The thank you note is completed within 2-3 weeks.

3-Star Rating

An e-mail or phone call to the person who gave the gift. The gift receiver names the gift and why he/she liked it. The thank you e-mail or call is completed within 2-3 weeks.

2-Star Rating

You thank the person who gave you the gift in person the next time you see them.

1-Star Rating

A generic letter or e-mail that says thank you to a whole group for the gift(s). It does not name the specific gift given or a specific person who gave the gift. I am guilty of sending one of these thank you notes to my students after receiving a very nice gift card. It was a particularly hectic holiday, and I wanted the whole class to know I received the gift.

Bitty Birthday Cupcakes

We are sending itty bitty cupcakes (recipe below) to my son’s class at school in honor of his birthday this year. As a teacher, I spend more time on the distribution side of class birthday treats, and I have some guidelines for any newbies to the school birthday treat circuit. Sending birthday treats for the class starts in nursery school, and the rules don’t change too much no matter how old you are.

  1. If possible, let the teacher know ahead of time about the type of treat you will be sending and what day. It helps teachers plan for a special snack time and anticipate any food allergy alerts (always send nut-free items just in case).
  2. Send enough for the whole class AND the teachers. Let me repeat– send enough for the teachers.
  3. Send small treats. Rather than a whole donut for each child, send donut holes (two to three Munchkins per child). Rather than regular cupcakes, send mini versions.
  4. Send items that are pre-cut, pre-packaged, or individually wrapped to make sharing the snack easier.
  5. Don’t forget paper napkins, paper plates, and plastic utensils if needed.
  6. You do not have to send an edible treat. Kids love fun pencils, Japanese erasers, crazy straws, stickers, etc.
  7. In my experience, sending birthday treats begins to taper off around the 4th grade. By 5th and 6th grade, maybe a quarter of the students send in birthday snacks.

I love this recipe for Perfect Cake-Mix Cupcakes courtesy of Hello, Cupcake!. I like the frosting recipes in the Hello, Cupcake! book too, but I totally cheated this time and used the pre-made Betty Crocker Cupcake Icing in the squeeze cans with the decorative tips. I used gelatin shot cups to make the super mini size. I found the tiny cups in the paper product aisle at my grocery store.

Ingredients

  • 1 box (18.25 oz) cake mix (French vanilla or yellow)
  • 1 c. buttermilk (in place of the water called for on the box)
  • vegetable oil (the amount on the box, usually 1/3 c. for yellow cakes)
  • 4 large eggs (in place of the number called for on the box)

Directions

  • Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
  • Set out paper gelatin shot cups on a tray with a lip. The gelatin cups stand on their own, but they will also fit into mini muffin cups if you are worried about them tipping over. The recipe makes 24 regular sized cupcakes, so you should get ~48 mini cupcakes.
  • Follow the box instructions, putting all of the ingredients in a large bowl and using the buttermilk in place of the water specified, using the amount of vegetable oil that is called for, and adding the eggs. Beat with an electric mixer until moistened, about 30 seconds. Increase the speed to high and beat until thick, about 2 minutes longer.
  • Fill gelatin cups a little less than 2/3 full. Bake until golden and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, 15 to 20 minutes. Allow to cool completely before frosting.

Chex Cereal, the Cadillac of Snack Ingredients

I never thought I would have a recipe box dedicated to one ingredient, but I am becoming dangerously close to having just that with my Chex Party Mixes. They are so versatile, and you can make them in large quantities for nursery school snacks, birthday parties, and adult get togethers. The almighty Chex cereal (and its distant cousins– Crispix and Golden Grahams) are the perfect base for sweet or salty snacking.

tijuana tidbits chex party mix

The neighborhood card sharks met in our backyard office Saturday night, and I made Tijuana Tidbits. This is the newest member of my Chex Party Mix recipe box. Watch out, it has a kick!

Do you have any Chex Party Mix combos I can add to my arsenal? I have many sweet Chex recipes like the Dinosaur Chex Mix, but I am looking for some more savory combinations.

Ingredients

  • 4 c. Fritos original corn chips
  • 4 c. Crispix cereal
  • 1 bag microwave popcorn (remove “old maids”)
  • 1 8-oz can mixed nuts
  • 1 c. cashew nuts
  • 1/2 c. light corn syrup
  • 1/2 c. margarine, not butter
  • 1/2 c. packed brown sugar
  • 1 T. chili powder
  • 1/3 t. cinnamon
  • 1/2 t. cayenne pepper

Directions

  • Heat oven to 250 degrees.
  • Combine chips, cereal, popcorn, and nuts in a large bowl and mix gently.
  • Combine corn syrup, margarine, brown sugar, chili powder, cinnamon, and cayenne pepper. Heat to boiling and pour over Frito mixture. Stir until coated.
  • Pour coated mixture onto a roasting pan (sprayed with Pam). Bake 1 hour, stirring every 20 minutes.
  • Remove from oven and turn onto waxed paper to cool. Store in airtight container.