Friday, December 30, 2016

2016 In Review

2016 has been a rough one for my family.  The year started off with a cancer diagnosis and various surgical procedures for me, all during my busy tax season.  My husband lost two brothers to cancer within a two-month time span later in the year. Our parents are having aging and health issues that has required more of our time. Surely 2017 has to be better, right? In glancing back through this blog, which is basically a journal for me, I have evidence of the positive things that happened during the year.  I grew creatively in many areas, including making my first-ever quilts. I hosted teas and various family events. My granddaughters and I had a lot of fun times in the kitchen. My backyard gardening continues to be both stress relief and a source of pride for me. As bad as the year felt at times, there are also a lot of good memories and accomplishments.


January found me joining an online weekly sew-along where I progressed on my first quilt.  Each week we would get instructions for a new block. I made a lot of mistakes and learned a lot, too.  I was worried I wouldn't be able to keep up with my tax season schedule but it was actually a great source of relaxation for me.  I would come home from work and do a little each night before going to bed. It was enough to distract me from numbers and dealing with clients. We finished the quilt in May and I've made two quilts since.  I'm about to start another sew-along in a few weeks!


In early February I hosted my family's annual tea.  Normally, our teas are held in December, but due to my granddaughter's role in the Nutcracker ballet we moved the tea until after Christmas. As it was so close to our next major holiday we had a Valentines themed tea.


I taught myself to cross stitch when I was home on maternity leave with my son 34 years ago. I started a new sampler at the beginning of the year and, by March, hadn't gotten very far with it. I'm still plugging along on it, should have it finished in the next week or two! I'm not a slow stitcher but I have so many hobbies and projects and only so much time to spend on each! I did manage to complete two pieces that had been languishing in my to-do basket so I did make some visible progress! I have two other cross-stitched marriage samplers that I've made throughout the years and have ordered a pattern to make another one.  I think a 2017 project may be a marriage sampler gallery wall in my bedroom!


The end of tax season and the beginning of strawberry season coincides in my area of the world.  I always look forward to my first trip to the strawberry field and the big, red, juicy berries. Instead of traditional strawberry shortcake I tried a Tres Leches Cake from the Barefoot Contessa.  It was so good and remembering it has me craving some just-picked strawberries!


We added a storage shed to our side yard, in the form of a small barn.  It added a lot of color, character, and functionality to an awkward part of the property.


My granddaughters are growing up much too fast and scheduling time with them is getting harder and harder. They have so many things to do and that doesn't always mean hanging out with Nana! My two oldest and I had a fun morning in the kitchen making these decadent cupcakes!



Mid-summer finds my garden at its peak.  It's full of color and blooms, birds and bees. It gets very hot here at that time of year. I have to do my gardening chores very early in the morning, but the rewards are worth it!



I love fresh pasta and find each time I make some, it gets easier.  I expanded my repertoire a little with this pasta dish, adding lemon pepper to the dough.  It was very pretty and added a lot of flavor to the dish.


One is never too old to play with dishes is my motto!  A new table runner, and a visit to a local store where some plates caught my eye, found me mixing and matching things and making sugar cookies to come up with this table setting.


I went way out of my comfort zone when I decided to strip down an old door and convert it to an outdoor beverage station.  It took me longer than planned, was more work than I envisioned, but I'm in love with the end result!


Each year I squeeze a gazillion pomegranates to make jelly for family and friends.  The juice makes a great cosmo, too!


My granddaughters have quit ballet so we were able to have our family tea in December once more, thus I hosted two teas this year. The woodland theme was very "Christmasy".  Our wonderful family tradition continues on!

Thank you for visiting my blog this year and sharing your comments with me. Who knows what 2017 will bring, but I look forward to sharing my domestic adventures with you.  Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Lemon Meringue Cheesecake

My Hubbers and I recently had lunch at The Cheesecake Factory. As the name implies, there is a lot of cheesecake to choose from. In addition to a bakery display case full of decadent cheesecakes, they also had TV screens flashing pictures of various cheesecake offerings. How could anyone resist?  My Hubby honed in on their lemon meringue cheesecake and didn't deviate from that when we were presented with the full dessert menu. The cheesecake was topped with lemon curd and meringue.  He ate every crumb and proceeded to ask me if that was something I could replicate for Christmas. I took that as a challenge and got to work looking up recipes. Being the nice Hubby that he is he told me that mine was much better than the restaurant's version. He has a few brownie points in reserve now! All my guests enjoyed the cheesecake so I will definitely make it again.

The starting point of the cheesecake was a recipe from the cookbook Luscious Lemon Desserts by Lori Longbotham. What attracted me to this recipe was the method of grinding sugar and lemon zest together.  Rather than having large pieces of zest in the cheesecake, which some don't find attractive, the zest was finely ground with the sugar providing a subtle lemon flavor. More lemon flavor was provided by using some lemon juice.  I took it one step further and marbled fresh lemon curd into the cheesecake batter. The cheesecake also has sour cream in it.  The result was a lemony, very creamy, cheesecake. More lemon curd was spread on the top of the cheesecake and then a cooked meringue on top of that.  It was pretty and, oh, so, good!

In my opinion,commercial lemon curd pales in comparison to the fresh version.  It's not hard to make; it's egg yolks, lemon juice, and sugar cooked to a spreadable consistency. It can be made a day or two ahead of time and you will have extra for other uses.  I use this recipe.

Most meringues are uncooked and are applied on top of a hot filling, which cooks the underside of the meringue, before placing in the oven and browning. This method wouldn't work with a chilled cheesecake. The thought of uncooked eggs didn't appeal to me so I went with a cooked meringue.  It's got more of a marshmallow texture, rather than a light and fluffy meringue. 

Lemon Meringue Cheesecake

1 1/2 cups graham cracker crumbs
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

1 cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoon lemon zest, finely grated
3 (8-ounce) packages cream cheese, room temperature
1 cup sour cream
2 tablespoons lemon juice, fresh squeezed
3 large eggs
1 cup (approximately) lemon curd, chilled

Position rack in the middle of the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Butter the bottom and side of a 9" springform pan. Have ready a roasting pan.  Put on a kettle of water to boil for the water bath.

Stir together the crumbs and butter with a fork in a medium bowl until combined well.  Press the crumb mixture into the bottom of the pan.  Bake 8-10 minutes or until crust is set; let cool on a wire rack. Reduce the oven temperature to 325 degrees.

Process sugar and lemon zest in a food processor until zest is finely ground.

In a medium bowl, with an electric mixer, beat cream cheese beginning on low speed; increasing to medium-high, until light and fluffy.

Gradually add sugar mixture, scraping down the side of the bowl with a rubber spatula, continue beating until smooth.

Add sour cream and lemon juice; beat until well blended.  Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition.

Wrap the outside of the springform pan with heavy-duty aluminum foil, then pour half the filling into the pan. Dollop large teaspoons of lemon curd on top; with a knife marble the curd into the filling. Repeat with remaining filling and more lemon curd. Set the pan in the roasting pan.  Place the roasting pan in the oven and carefully pour in enough boiling water into the roasting pan to reach halfway up the side of the springform pan.

Bake for 70-75 minutes or until the center is almost set but still slightly jiggly.  Do not overbake, the cheesecake will firm as it cools.

Remove the roasting pan from the oven and let the cheesecake cool in the water bath for 15 minutes.  Remove from the bath; let it cool on a wire rack.

Remove the foil; refrigerate the cheesecake in its pan, loosely covered, for at least 8 hours or overnight, until thoroughly chilled.

Run a table knife around the inside edge of the pan; remove the pan's side.  Spread approximately 1/2 cup lemon curd over the top of the cheesecake.

Top with meringue and brown the meringue using a kitchen blow torch.

4 large egg whites
3/4 cup granulated sugar

Fill the bottom of a double boiler with about 2-3 inches of water.  Bring to a boil.

Whisk the eggs and sugar in the top of the double boiler (or use a bowl and saucepan). Place on top of the pan with the boiling water.  Whisk constantly for about 5-7 minutes, until the mixture reaches 140 degrees (use a candy thermometer).

Immediately transfer the hot mixture to a stand mixer fitted with a whisk attachment. Beat at high speed until stiff peaks form.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Cookie Fun!

My six-year old granddaughter has puttered with me in the kitchen since she was still in diapers.  She's graduated from standing on a chair at the mixing station to sitting on a bar stool. She's in kindergarten, learning to add and subtract, so she can really help with the measuring now.  We have had many memorable cookie baking sessions.

She also loves to decorate cookies so I thought it would be fun to have a few of her friends over for a gingerbread decorating party. To save on time, I cut out and baked the cookies the day before. We shopped for sprinkles and candies and set the table with a plastic tablecloth (great way to avoid the mess!) She was so excited to have her friends over!

Gingerbread boys and girls, snowman, tree, star & mitten!

Of course we needed a snack for the little decorators so we spent a Friday evening making peanut blossoms.  My Christmas season is not complete unless I've made at least one batch of these cookies for the season!  Kids love them, what is not to love about the combination of peanut butter and chocolate?

The girls had a lot of fun decorating the cookies.  The chatter and laughter of these little girls filled my heart with joy.  They were so proud to take their finished creations home to their families (and the calories went to their homes, too!)

Such concentration by my granddaughter!

Coloring books for adults is a big trend right now.  It's said that coloring relaxes people and relieves stress. I think decorating cookies is a similar therapeutic process.  All week, after the gingerbread day, I had the urge to do some cookies. I cut out and baked sugar cookies during the week.  Saturday morning I sat down and, with Christmas carols blaring, proceeded to color using royal icing. My Hubbers was gone for the day and it was a very relaxing afternoon for me.  We had a small family dinner that night so the bonus was I had our dessert covered, as well as a few for neighbors and friends.

I found the idea for these cookies on Pinterest (I love that site!)  The snowman is made with a cupcake-shaped cookie cutter.  As I currently have 8 plastic shoeboxes of cookie cutters, it's always nice to find multiple uses for a cutter.  I never would have thought to make a snowman out of a cupcake!

My Christmas gifts have been bought, made, and wrapped.  I didn't send out Christmas cards this year. But I have made a lot of cookies and frosting!

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Christmas Cards

My Hubbers and I will be married 35 years in March. We are empty nesters.  At this point in our lives there is nothing we want or need and, if there is, we usually just go buy it. We mutually agreed to quit buying each other Christmas gifts a number of years ago.  It was one more thing to have to do during a hectic time of year and neither one of us enjoys shopping. Instead, we do something special with each other.  This year we spent 2 days in San Francisco, seeing the sights and having a nice dinner. These memories are more important to us than gifts.  I know some couples really look forward to exchanging gifts and filling stockings, but that's just not us.  One thing we do, though, is buy each other a special Christmas card.  At sometime during the Christmas season we will place our card in the branches of our Christmas tree. On Christmas morning we sit together in front of the fire and open our cards. It's become a special tradition for us. I added my card to the tree a few days ago.  Tonight I noticed he had put his card in it. Amongst all the glitter, lights and ribbons of Christmas our cards represent our love for  each other.  I couldn't ask for a better gift.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Chocolate and Maraschino Cherry Shortbread Cookies

I'm not much for making platters of cookies to give away during the holidays. I know that we are given so many, that often they go to waste, so I gift other items such as my pomegranate jelly. However, if I were to make cookie platters these little cookies would be on them! They are easy to make, not overly sweet, and their pink color makes them very festive (they would also be a good Valentines Day cookie, too!) 

I like them just as they are but if you are a real chocoholic you can drizzle them with melted chocolate.  White chocolate chips can be substituted for the dark chips if that is more to your liking.  They are very versatile!

Chocolate and Maraschino Cherry Shortbread Cookies

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
1/2 cup confectioners sugar
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup maraschino cherries, chopped and patted dry
1/2 cup dark chocolate chips
1/2 tablespoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon almond extract

In a large mixing bowl, cream the butter and confectioners sugar.  Combine the flour and salt; slowly add to the creamed mixture. Mix until it starts forming larger clumps.

Mix in the maraschino cherries, chocolate chips and the two extracts.

On a lightly floured surface, form the dough into a log.  Wrap it in plastic and let it chill for at least one hour.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Cut the log into 1/4-inch thick slices and place them on a parchment-lined baking pan.  Bake for 10-15 minutes until they just start to turn lightly brown on top.

Remove to wire rack and let cool completely.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Christmas Tags 2016

I recently read an article where Neuroscientists believe that forms of creativity are beneficial to your health.  Their reasoning is that while we are being creative our brains release dopamine, which is a natural anti-depressant.  Creativity usually takes concentration and it can lead to the feeling of a natural high. Many scientists believe that there is a link between creative activities and the ability to reduce cognitive impairment associated with aging.  Taking the time to activate creativity allows you time to de-stress and relax.  Research shows that creative practices improve depression, anxiety and coping skills while significantly reducing stress, which are all vital for brain health and well-being. Crafting can give you a sense of pride and achievement and teach you patience and perseverance.

I am clearly no scientist but my experience is that crafting is very relaxing.  My creative activities usually involve cross stitching, sewing (lately I've been learning to quilt), paper crafts and baking, but I am game to try anything.  I am not one to sit in front of the TV with idle hands, they must be moving, so I usually stitch if watching a movie. A date with a cup of tea, my corner chair and my latest cross stitch project is very therapeutic to me. I have to concentrate on my stitches and the pattern and soon the stress of everyday life has been dissipated for a while. I tend to believe what the scientists are saying!

The last few years I've been playing with paper; making cards, banners and tags. I make a different Christmas tag each year.  I know, they are not expensive to buy at Hobby Lobby but it's for my mental health, remember?!! This year my design inspiration was a Stampin Up! bird punch that I've had for a few years. I have bird feeders all over my backyard so it seemed rather fitting that I incorporate birds into my tags!

Paper projects are easily broken down into small steps so they can be done over a period of time.  I started my tags on Election night, using a punch to cut out the bird and branch while I watched the election results. One night after work, and using my Silhouette die cutter machine, I produced a bunch of plain white tags in my chosen shape. While watching football on Sunday I stamped them with written images, ran them through a snowflake embossing folder, and glued the birds and branches on them. Each step was easy and didn't take much time. And I'm sure my dopamine production was at high capacity!

I used my Silhouette machine to quickly cut out multiple tags.

Stamping the sentiments and drinking a latte!

Embossing adds texture to the tags.
Now I need to finish the gift wrapping!

Sunday, December 4, 2016

A Woodland Christmas Tea

One doesn't wake up one morning and decide to start a tradition, they just evolve over time.  Next thing you know, years have gone by and a tradition has been made.  This is the case with my family's annual Christmas tea.  Ten years ago my cousin and I decided to plan a gathering so that our family wasn't just seeing each other at funerals.  We met in a local tea shop the first two years.  When it closed down the tea moved to my home. It has been the norm to meet the first Saturday after Thanksgiving weekend.  We deviated a few years when my granddaughters were performing in the Nutcracker ballet.  They've moved on from dance so we have gone back to our original date. Everyone brings food; this year we had quiches, French toast bake, various salads, cake, cookies, fresh fruit.  I bake scones and serve them with lemon curd and homemade strawberry jam.  It was all yummy, everyone in my family knows their way around the kitchen! Each guest also goes home with a jar of my pomegranate jelly.

I come up with a theme each year and decorate accordingly.  I know I often get carried away, but it's a fun endeavor for me.  Some years I have the theme planned way in advance.  Others, like this year, took me a while.  I was out shopping one day, looking for inspiration, and noticed a lot of woodland-themed decorations.  Thus, this year's theme was born.  Woodland animals, greenery, moss, wood chargers, lanterns and candles, along with lots of fresh flowers became the foundation of the decorating. I even found a wooden sleigh that became a flower-laden centerpiece. My Nikko Happy Holidays Christmas china came out of storage for the occasion and my Woodland Spode silverware was the perfect accompaniment to the theme. It was festive, very Christmasy and was enjoyed by young and old alike!

We had 16 in attendance this year, ranging in age from 6 to 90. It's a girls-only affair though everyone loads up on leftovers to take home to the guys in their family. It has become such a great way for our family to stay in touch with each other.  And, yes, I have the theme for 2017 already churning in my brain!



I'm linking up to Tablescape Thursday.