Athena Magazine

Fashion, lifestyle, passions

Holiday Prep – Already?!? October 31, 2009

Serving Hot CocoaBy Julia Pantoga

Don’t come complaining to me about those crowded mall parking lots in December. I’ll be home drinking hot chocolate or cranberry vodka with friends. You can be there too, with a little advance planning.

Last year I went all out to give you timely holiday prep tips and I have little to add this year, so here’s a list of all the holiday prep articles from last year:

holiday cookiesGiving Away Baked Goods

Holiday Roll-out Cookies – Part One
Holiday Roll-out Cookies – Part Two
Holiday Roll-out Cookies – Part Three

Packing for Holiday Travel

Holiday Entertaining Made Easy

Great Baking Gift Recipes

Decorating Your Home

Handmade Gift Ideas

Super Yummy Fast Fast Party Snacks

In order to kick back in December, here’s a list of things to start this week:
     
1. If you are going to give away baked goods:

             a. Decide what you are going to make (last year I gave away little gingerbread cakes, this year is all cookies, I’ll share my recipes with you in a few weeks.)
             b. Start collecting containers for putting the baked goods in (see photo below)
             c. Keep your eye out for sales on specialty ingredients (If you are using commercial candy in your holiday baking, you will probably find it on sale on Sunday, November 1, the day after Halloween)

gift containers

Containers I have accumulated so far, for less than $30

     2. If you are going to make decorated holiday sugar cookies, make the dough and freeze it now.

     3. If you are going to send holiday cards:
              a. Go through your list to make sure you have complete addresses for the entire list.
              b. Pick out the holiday cards you are going to use (I KNOW you have them because you bought them right after the holidays last year like I told you, right?) Put the card box next to where you sit to watch TV. Put a pen in the box and print out a list of everyone you will be sending cards to. During commercials, address the envelopes. Be sure to put the pen back in the box. I have learned over the years that addressing the envelopes is a big job and there is no reason you can’t do it in advance and make writing cards that much more pleasant.

Finally, it is never too early to begin making bags of Super Yummy Fast Fast Party Snacks and start storing them in your freezer to grab on your way to a party!

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Holiday Prep: Easiest Holiday Cookies Ever, Part 3 December 19, 2008

holiday-cookies1

By Julia Pantoga, resident domestic goddess

Finally! We are in the last phase of our holiday cookie project: Decorating the Cookies (For reference, the first two steps were making the dough and rolling and baking cookies).

Don’t call the kids in yet. There’s still some set up you’ll want to do before you have young ones underfoot.

The first step to decorating cookies is to make frosting:  a lot of it. I make 4 cups of it for 4 dozen cookies,
(which is my yield from the recipe I gave you back in October in Easiest Holiday Cookies Ever – Part 1)  Cookie frosting has only two ingredients:  confectioner’s sugar and milk. The ratio is 1 ½ teaspoons of milk for every cup of confectioners sugar.  Be careful working with the confectioner’s sugar—it can really be a mess. Wear your apron and whenever you pour it from one container to another, try not to spill (good luck with that, I’ve been handling the stuff for decades and I still make a mess with it).

Divide your frosting into several small bowls and color each using the deluxe food coloring that I recommended that you buy in Easiest Holiday Cookies – Part 1. Don’t forget to set at least a cup of your frosting aside to use whenever you need white frosting. You can see from the photo below that I forgot to do that and had to go back later to make more frosting.

several-colors-of-frosting

Once you have your frosting made and the confectioner’s sugar is put away, call the kids! Remember, the thickest cookies and the ones with the fewest appendages will be the easiest to handle. To the extent that you can control which cookies little ones select to work on, direct them towards the thickest cookies.

Another thing you should have picked up at the decorating store back in October was a small, angled and tapered spatula and paintbrushes for icing your cookies. As you may recall, I’m not crazy about decorating cookies—so instead of painstakingly applying detail to each one, I try to get the entire job done as quickly as possible. Here’s what I do (I’m using my Christmas tree cookies for this example):

1.     Pour about one teaspoon of base color frosting to each cookie. You may need to thin the frosting a little bit for this step—use milk, added ¼ teaspoon at a time. For my Christmas tree project, the base color was medium green.
2.    Use your spatula to spread the frosting over the entire cookie.
3.    While the frosting is still wet, decorate the edges with small candies.
4.    Choose a darker color and apply light brush strokes to the top of each cookie. For my Christmas trees, I used dark blue-green.
lots-of-christmas-trees(You’ll see this whole process again when I post my Valentine’s Day column, except the cookies will be shaped like hearts and the frosting colors will be pink and dark red.)

I decorate all of my cookies either painting solid colors or using this “gesso” painting process.  The only other technique I use is to sometimes put a smaller cookie of the same shape on a larger cookie.  If you insist on using other decorating materials on your cookies, make sure that everything dries eventually.  Gel decorating products are beautiful, but the if the gel doesn’t dry, you end up with ridiculously fragile smeared cookies.

The cookies at the top of this essay were decorated by a professional artist friend of mine and the cookies below were decorated entirely by yours truly.

finished-cookies

 

Holiday Prep: Stunningly Beautiful and Delicious Drink December 18, 2008

By Julia Pantoga, resident domestic goddess

finished-cranberry-vodkaI used to try to give this one away for gifts, but by the time I found bottles to use for giving it away, my friends and I had already made history of it.  Basically, it’s vodka marinated for 10 days with orange peels and cranberries.  The vanilla in the cranberry mixture makes it taste vaguely like cherries.  I serve it “neat” (with no garnishment), but it can be served mixed with tonic water, ice and a lime garnish.

Here’s the step-by-step:
1.     Combine 1 lb. cranberries, 1 cup sugar and 2 teaspoons vanilla in a medium saucepan over medium heat until the berries burst, about 5 minutes.
2.    Wash and peel 2 oranges.  Cut peels into strips.
3.    Pour 1 bottle (750 ml) of vodka over orange peels and cooled cranberry mixture in airtight container.  After 10 days, strain into a clean bottle.  Store in refrigerator.
cranberry-vodka-marinatingAt left, marinating vodka-cranberry mix.

 

Holiday Prep: The Easiest Holiday Cookies Ever! Part Two December 17, 2008

holiday-cookies
By Julia Pantoga

Do you remember that I recommended that you break your holiday cutout cookie baking into three steps?

1.    Making the dough
2.    Rolling and baking
3.    Decorating

This is Step Two: Rolling and Baking. I assume you have three packages of cookie dough in your freezer, as I advised you back in October in The Easiest Holiday Cookies Ever! Part One.

I’m a flour-flying-all-over-the-kitchen kind of baker, so this very neat, no-flour-mess method of rolling out cookie dough was counter-intuitive to me. But it works—really well.  And it’s really neat. I did it wearing dress clothes and no apron.

Before I give you the step-by-step, there’s two important notes:
•    Many recipes for rolled dough assume that flour will be added to the dough during the rolling process, so this method won’t necessarily for sugar cookie dough recipes other than the one I gave you.
•    The proper height for a rolling surface is slightly below your hips. That means that if you are on the short side a table, not a counter, will work best for you. You need the leverage of being able to bend over your project easily.

dough-rolling-setupHere’s the step-by-step for my no-mess method of rolling cookie dough (The parchment paper and tape industries ought to be sending me kickbacks for this!):

1.    Put a cookie sheet in the refrigerator.
2.    Tape a piece of parchment paper to the rolling surface.
3.    Put a small disk of dough on the parchment paper (about ½ of one of the bags you made in October, or, if you didn’t do that, about 1/6 of the recipe I gave you, or, if you’re using a different recipe, about 1/3 pound).
4.    Tape a larger piece of parchment paper over the top of the dough.
5.    Roll the dough slowly to 1/8” thick.  Eliminate any creases in the parchment paper as you go along, as creases in your final dough will cause your cookies to crack and break. I don’t recommend rolling any thinner that 1/8”, because thinner cookies break easily when you decorate them.
6.    Carefully lift off the top layer of parchment paper, leaving it taped to the rolling surface for the next rolling.
7.    Remove the bottom layer of parchment paper with the rolled dough on it and place it on the cookie sheet in the refrigerator for at least ½ hour.
8.    Repeat steps 2-7 until all the dough is rolled.  When you have finished, put the top piece of parchment paper on top of all the layers.

rolled-dough-in-the-refrigerator Well, I sure wish I had learned that trick of refrigerating the rolled dough years ago!

While your rolled dough is chilling, set up for cutting and baking your cookies. Put the cookie cutters and cookie sheets that you want to use right next to where you will be working with the dough. Your cold dough will make it infinitely easier to move raw cookies around, but you still want to minimize how far you move them.  The best tool for picking up and moving cookie dough (even cold dough) is and angled (not tapered) spatula used for frosting cakes.

After baking, you want to handle and move the cookies as little as possible before you decorate them (minimize opportunities for breaking cookies), so you may want to set up the area where you will have your cookies cool as well.

cutting-setupTake your rolled dough out of the refrigerator, one piece at a time and work quickly, as cold dough is much, much easier to work with than room temperature dough! Leave the cold cookie sheet in the refrigerator, as you will have enough dough scraps to make a second (maybe even a third, but no more—by then your dough will be terribly worn out) batch of cookies.

After cutting, bake your cookies for 5 minutes at 400°. While they are baking, gather and roll the scraps of dough, using the parchment paper and tape routine I described above. It is at this point that I begin to become irritated with the entire holiday cookie project and mutter to myself, “How on earth could anyone think this is a fun project?” Thrifty as I am, I use the parchment paper over that I used before and tape only the bottom piece down.

OK, in a few days, I’ll show you how to decorate these bad boys.

Why so many Christmas trees?  Tune in in a few days and find out!

Why so many Christmas trees? Tune in in a few days and find out!

 

Holiday Prep: Super-Yummy, Fast-Fast Party Snacks December 12, 2008

By Julia Pantoga

finished-scarabs1These are so easy, that you’ll be hard pressed not to laugh when you tell others what you did. Last year we named them “Scarabs” because they resemble Scarab beetles. But the name that sticks is “those Rolo-pretzel things.” Essentially, this elegant looking snack is a pretzel with a Rolo candy melted over it, topped off with a pecan. As my friend’s mother said, “The hardest thing about them is unwrapping all those *!#@$ candies!” Here’s the step-by-step:
1.    Unwrap two bags of Rolo candies. I take care of this step in front of the TV, the night before I make these. At Halloween, they sell the candies wrapped in packages of three; if you pick up a few bags then, you’ll save yourself some unwrapping work.
2.    Preheat oven to 300°.
3.    Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper.
4.    Spread pretzels out on the cookie sheet (not too close to each other or the melted caramel from one will stick to the other).
5.    Top each pretzel with a Rolo candy.
6.    Bake for 10 minutes. When they are ready, the candy will be soft, but it won’t melt over the pretzel.
baked-scarabs7.    Press a pecan into each candied pretzel.
8.    Let cool before bagging up for the freezer.
baggies-of-scarabs

I keep baggies of 2 dozen in my freezer, for quick contributions to informal parties. I’ve also been known to take baggies of these with me on long car trips.  This is a fabulous treat!

 

Holiday Entertaining Made Easy November 11, 2008

entertainingBy Julia Pantoga

This is a sociable time of year. For some of us, entertaining is fun—a chance to show off our lovely homes, our cooking and our planning skills to friends; a chance to work on the puzzle of how to fit 15 people into a home that feels crowded with 3 people in it; and a chance to drag out party games and toys that have gone unplayed since last winter.

For others, entertaining is a stressful required chore of the holiday season—this year, it is your turn to host the family (including all the nieces and nephews and their children) for Christmas Eve. You don’t keep your house visitor-ready (i.e. clean and neat with valuables put away), you don’t feel comfortable around a lot of people, and cooking doesn’t come naturally to you. Whether you love to entertain or not, here are some tips to make it less stressful:

Entertaining is for you to enjoy
As you are preparing to entertain, remember always that entertaining is meant to be enjoyable for you. Don’t serve food you don’t like. Don’t invite people into your home you don’t like. Close off rooms of your house that you don’t want people in. If cooking doesn’t come naturally to you, or you don’t enjoy it, buy food from a restaurant or a caterer. If you really feel uncomfortable having several people in your home, throw money at the problem: entertain in a restaurant party room.

Prepare EVERYTHING in advance
You may want to serve foods to your guests that you can’t prepare much in advance, such as spinach salad. I’m sorry, but you really need to knock that off your planned menu because you need to prepare EVERYTHING in advance! There are two reasons for this:
1.    When you are entertaining, the only thing you should be thinking about is enjoying yourself.
2.    If you have a small space, you can use your food preparation areas as flat surfaces for putting out food.

This lovely display of family photos will be put away in the service of snacks!

This lovely display of family photos will be put away in the service of snacks!

Use every surface
And I mean EVERY surface: the stove (if you don’t have a flat top, use planks of plywood and table cloths to make it flat); the top of the coffee table where you usually keep magazines; the end table where you keep awesome photos of your kids; the kitchen counters (which you don’t need since you already prepared EVERYTHING in advance).

bookshelf-barUse the rest of the house creatively
Empty a bookshelf and use it as a bar. Keep the cold drinks in your bathtub or kitchen sink. Put everyone’s coats on the wicker sofa in the screened in porch.

Final reminders.
•    Enjoy yourself.
•    If you have only one bathroom, don’t use that bathtub for cold drinks.
•    If you don’t want people to go in your bedroom, don’t put coats in there.
•    Before you have people you aren’t close to in your house, snoop-proof it. Paper bags are helpful for this. Say you keep several medications in your medicine cabinet in the bathroom that you’d rather not have just anyone see. Put them all in a paper bag and put the bag in your underwear drawer. That is not a great hiding place to prevent burglaries, but it is good enough for a party.  While it is entirely likely that someone will open your medicine cabinet; it is improbable that a party-goer will rifle through your underwear drawer and open a paper bag. Use a paper, rather than plastic, because it makes more noise. Since your medicines are all together in one bag, they will be easy to return to the medicine cabinet after your party.

party-toys•    Leaving toys and reference books (atlases, dictionaries, etc.) out are always good for getting lively conversation going.

Easy and fabulous party foods:
•    Figs, cut in half topped with cream cheese mixed with chopped pecans (you have no idea how great this is until you try it)
•    Homemade cookies
•    Apple slices with lime juice squeezed over them, served with good cheddar cheese

The best party foods:
•    Don’t require a fork
•    Don’t require a plate
•    Can be eaten standing up and with one hand
And here’s the deal about serving:  Nothing you serve has to look fantastic. Rather, it should be easy to get to and serve, and it should taste great. Your friends are there to enjoy you and your hospitality, not to be impressed.

figs-and-cookies