Category Archives: Holidays

Recipes specifically for or about any American holiday

Dark Chocolate Cherry Truffles

 

This is a recipe I tried in preparation for a Valentine’s Day baking contest. Everybody loves truffles, I know I do. And my boyfriend loves anything cherry. Therefore I decided to try making some chocolate cherry truffles to share. They were very simple to make, and I’m sure could be customize to whatever dried fruit or flavor you desire. Have fun, and make sure to make enough to share and to keep for yourself!

Ingredients:
1/2 cup dried cherries
1/2 cup vanilla vodka
12 oz dark chocolate (mixed kinds)
Powdered sugar
Cinnamon sugar

Step 1: Soak the cherries in the vodka for at least 30 minutes. They will absorb the flavor and the alcohol.

Step 2: In 30-second bursts, slowly melt the chocolate until smooth. Mix in the soaked cherries.

 Step 3: Form into 1 inch balls and refrigerate until solid. Roll in topping of your choice.

These would also be delicious and adorable if covered in milk chocolate or drizzled with colored white chocolate. In fact, truffles are great anytime, not just for a holiday. Share the love.

What is your favorite chocolate treat?

 

Valentine’s Day: History, love and misery

 

As I’m sure you’re aware from the deluge of pink and red and hearts, that happy love-struck day known as Valentine’s Day is near. For some this means a romantic getaway for two, for some this is just another dinner and a movie with nicer clothes, for some this means getting a sitter for the kids for the first time all year, for some this means a night of eating ice cream and crying, and for some this means absolutely nothing other than the fact that it’s a Friday. None of these reactions are right or wrong, and don’t let anybody tell you differently. So why is it called “Valentine’s Day” and not something simple like “Love Day”?

Saint Valentine

Saint Valentine is the man for whom this sappy holiday has been named, but ironically he both did and did not lead a very romantic life. He lived in a time when society was very lax on relationship rules, polygamy was kind of the norm, but of course the Catholic church didn’t like that one bit. They were pretty convinced that to have any ‘relations’ it should be within the bounds of a marriage, and a marriage was between one man and one woman, period. Unfortunately there was this emperor guy, Claudius, who persecuted the Church at the time, and did not allow people to marry within the church. Well, mister Valentine was like a secret cupid, and for those couples who wanted to be married within the rules of Catholicism, he would marry them. 

As these things often go, Valentine was caught and throw in prison, where he was tortured for contradicting the Emperor. But being such a nice guy, he kept helping people even in prison. There are stories of him praying for a man’s blind daughter and healing her, the father was so astonished he converted to Catholicism. Then, in 269 AD, Valentine was sentenced to a three part execution: a beating, stoning, and finally beheading. All because he wanted to unite young couples in love. Under the doctrine of the currently not-in-fashion church beliefs. However, he left his legacy by reportedly writing a letter to that man’s no longer blind daughter before his death, and signed it “from your Valentine” (Source: CBN). It should be noted that some sources argue whether this legend of St. Valentine is based on one or two separate people (Source: Catholic.org). His official feast day is of course, February 14.

For more on the history of Valentine’s Day, see this Huffington Post article, and History.com.

How to survive VDay financially

Now, this year, Valentine’s Day happens to fall on a Friday. It also just happens to be President’s Day weekend, meaning the following Monday is a holiday. This is a total jackpot if you want to plan a long weekend with your sweetie. However, it also means that there will be more people traveling, and places which cater to Hallmark holidays such as this are jacking up prices like mad. Hotels, gas stations, restaurants, you name it. Not to mention cards and candy for your kids’ classroom, flowers for the wife, dinner, wine, chocolates, and lingerie, and so much pressure. All this spending just as taxes are around the corner and starting to weigh on your mind. How do you survive this without burning a hole in your wallet?

1. Celebrate on your own terms

Just because some Catholic guy got beheaded in Rome a long time ago doesn’t mean you need to recognize his sainthood with an over-priced steak. Besides, calendars have undergone a few make-overs since then, so our February 14th isn’t even the same. The Wall Street Journal has an article by Brett Arands wherein he calls for a VDay revolution. He makes the splendid point that even by a simple comparison of hotels one week later versus on the big weekend, you can save 25% or more if you simply choose a different day to celebrate. Pick any day you want and shower your sweetie with love. It will probably be even more special, because then you will be the only couple with excessive PDA instead of everyone in the building.

2. Have an at-home date night

Much like a stay-cation, home date nights are a fantastic way to still break your routine and spend quality time together without breaking the bank. The possibilities are limited only by your imagination. Get cooking or baking, have a movie/Netflix marathon, or play some games together. You could have a nice dinner ready when your special someone gets home from work, like my Male & Female Style Pizza or make my homemade pizza dough from my Vegetarian Pepper Pizza (and top as you wish). Bonus points for making it into a heart shape.

Here are the Top 10 Stay-Home Date Ideas from AskMen, and the Top 50 Date-Night Ideas from Redbook.

3. Get away for cheap

If you are really feeling the cabin fever and want to get out of the house, or take advantage of the extra time off, try getting away but not to your typical hotel. Camping is always a great budget option, and you could look into traveling further south for warmer climates if you’ve been stuck inside during recent snowstorms. House sitting/swapping is also an option if you’re feeling adventurous. Here’s a good article on 10 things you need to know about home swapping from USA Today.


Now that you have tons of ideas, get to planning, or even better plan nothing at all. This totally applies if you’re single too. Take yourself on a date, go see a movie, make something fancy for dinner, have your own personal wine tasting. If you don’t have a “partner” or “significant other”, spend the time to shower yourself with love. After all, if you don’t love yourself then you can’t rightfully love someone else. In fact even if you DO have a partner you should show yourself a little love. No matter what you decide to do, enjoy yourself and anyone else you’re with, make happy memories, and be safe.


What’s your favorite romantic date idea?

 

New Years’ Day Lucky Tradition: Kielbasa and Sauerkraut

It’s almost 2014! 

I must admit I am a huge fan of almost all edible things pig. Bacon of course is in a league of its own. But ribs, chops and roasts are also all delicious and versatile to prepare. For New Year’s Day, my family has always had kielbasa and sauerkraut for good luck. You could also make a pork roast and sauerkraut. According to a Nosh blog, the reason for this good luck is because pork from a “fat” pig represents an abundant year to come, and the sauerkraut from ‘green’ cabbage represents wealth. Thinking about this tradition made me wonder what was in sauerkraut and where it comes from. This lead to hours of research into the various parts and cuts of pork. Stay tuned after the recipe if you want to know more! =)

Kielbasa & Sauerkraut Recipe

Ingredients:
1 small pork roast (2-4 lb) or 2-4 pounds kielbasa
1 bag of sauerkraut (or jar, or if you’re ambitious you can ferment your own)
1 can/bottle of beer, 12 oz
1 cup brown sugar
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Step 1: Place roast or kielbasa in a slow cooker. Mix the beer and brown sugar. Pour over the pork, then cover with kraut. Cook on high for ~4 hours or low 6-8 hours. Enjoy on NYD! May your 2014 be full of success and joy.

Photo from Pressure Cooking With Lorna Sass
Pork roast & sauerkraut on NYE


So what about the rest of the pig?

Generally speaking, pork tends to be less expensive than beef. For reasons I won’t discuss in this post, it is always a good idea to look for humanely raised pork, or best case scenario to be part of a CSA (which stands for Community Supported Agriculture) and get part of a farm-raised pig. Find one near you here. They usually raise a set number of pigs based on how many shares are purchased, then will slaughter them and divide up the meat for you. However, I understand most people don’t have the time, space, money, or energy to commit to a half or whole pig, wait half a year, then bring home a hundred pounds of meat in various cuts and store it. Therefore, this is more of a guide to what you’ll find at a typical grocery store and what you can do with it.

This photo is from CloveGardens website and shows the various cuts of pig.

The CloveGardens site also has photos of every cut of meat, including less well-known cuts and parts you wouldn’t normally think of using like the feet, snout, and organs. If you’re feeling adventurous you can ask your butcher, or try an ethnic market. The most typical cuts you find at a North American grocery store are chops and roasts. 

Ham

This is the upper part of the thigh, and is what we think of when we think of a holiday ham. Often oven roasted and marinated or glazed. Holds up to slow cooking methods, and tastes great paired with sweet glazes like brown sugar, maple, honey and/or pineapple.
 

Pork Chops (aka pork loin end chops, center loin chops, rib chops, end cut chops, top loin chops, pork blade chops)

Many different cuts of meat can be called pork chops. They can be bone-in or boneless, in various sizes and thicknesses. Typically, thicker-cut chops with the bone still in tend to be the juiciest and most flavorful. These are great for pan-frying and grilling. Boneless chops are also great for frying or grilling, but can fall apart easier in longer methods like slow cookers or braising. Pork blade chops are from the blade roast, and tend to be fattier and tougher than chops from other cuts. They can be tenderized by marinating beforehand, and can be cooked with longer methods.

Pork Roast (aka pork tenderloins, rib roasts, pork legs, top loin roast, sirloin roast, hipbone roast, end roast, butt and shoulder-see below)

Like chops, there are many cuts that get sold as a roast. They are defined as cuts which stand up well to oven or slow cooker roasting. 

Pork Rib Roast(aka pork center loin roast, pork roast)

The ribs can still be inside or the ribs may have been removed. These cuts are extremely flavorful and juicy, but still pretty lean. If you want to cook it with the slab of attached fat for flavor, simply carve it off before serving. 

Pork Blade Roast (aka pork rib end roast, rib end pork loin, 7-rib or 5-rib roast)

The blade roast comes from the back/shoulder areas, and is fattier than most other cuts. This makes it less expensive but very flavorful. If the bone is still in, you can ask the butcher to crack it between the ribs to carve it easier.

 

Pork Loin (aka tenderloin, loin chop)

Cuts from the loin come from along the back and sides of the spine and are the leanest, most tender cuts. This makes them easy to overcook, so try to avoid long cooking times. There are three sections, the Blade end, Center portion and Sirloin end. The Blade end is closest to the shoulders and like the Blade Roast tends to be fatty. The Center portion is in the middle, it is the leanest and most tender, which makes it usually the most expensive. The Sirloin end is nearest the rump, and is typically bony and lean. All can be pan-fried, braised, or slow cooked.

Hocks and Shanks

This is the shin area of the pig’s legs. A hock with skin removed is called a shank. They are often smoked, and make good additions to soups to add flavor. 

Pork Ribs 

The ribs are generally cut into three seperate sections, all of which are great for smoking, braising, oven roasting, or grilling. And all are great slathered in BBQ sauce. Country-style ribs or pork blade end ribs are the meatiest and fattiest of cuts, but they aren’t as easy to eat with your fingers. They can be bone-in or boneless. Pork back, or baby back ribs are the middle ground of meatiness and easier to pick up. Pork spareribes are the least meaty, but have the most popular texture for finger foods. They are tender-chewy, and are the least fatty cut.

Pork Shoulders & Butts

Though named differently, both cuts are from the shoulder of the pig. Technically they are different cuts. The “butt” (aka Boston butt or shoulder) comes from a thicker section with more marbling. This makes it ideal for pulled pork or other barbecue styles. The “shoulder” is usually the triangular piece of meat attached to the butt. Both are great braised, slow roasted, BBQ-ed, slow cooker style, or in stew. They can essentially be used interchangeably.  

Bacon and Sausage

Ahhh the longtime favorite, bacon is unique in taste and is revered worldwide for it meaty, smoky deliciousness. Used to flavor all types of dishes and soups, as a centerpiece of breakfasts, and wrapped around just about anything, bacon is a versatile meat. It does not come off the hog looking like bacon. First the ribs and belly are removed from the loin. The belly here does not refer to the actual stomach but rather the fatty underside of the pig. The spare ribs are cut away, then the pork belly is sent through the long process of curing, smoking and eventual slicing up into bacon. Sausage on the other hand, can be made from just about any part of the pig that is not used elsewhere. Anything that was left from de-boning other cuts, high quality meat that can’t be turned into a roast or chop, or pieces that didn’t end up elsewhere all get mixed together. They are seasoned in various ways and ground, sometimes multiple times. This is then sold as bulk sausage, patties, or put into casing for links, most often the pig’s own intestines. (Seriously).

For a great, thorough article on the various parts of the pig and how to use lesser known cuts see this website for Sugar Mountain Farm in Vermont, which has its own USDA approved butcher site on the farm. They use as much of the whole pig, nose-to-tail, as they can, which I totally approve of!

For an article which sub-divides these types of cuts even further and includes photos, see here. They also have pages for cuts from beef, lamb, and veal if you’re curious and I don’t cover them soon enough. 

If you have a solid stomach and want to see photos and a description of each step in the pork processing process (redundancy, check), check out this blog post from Chico Locker & Sausage Co.


Nutrition information such as calories, protein and fat content will vary greatly depending on the type of cut and how it was prepared. According to Nutritioninfo.com the average nutrition data from one pound of raw meat cooked is:

Pork contains plenty of protein, iron and selenium and no gluten. However it is high in cholesterol, so you should try to control portion sizes to 3-6 oz per serving, and as in all things use moderation. Pork is safe to eat when cooked to an internal temperature of 160 F, so use a meat thermometer if you have one. Generally speaking, when oven roasting you should cook it at least a half hour per pound of meat. 

Do you have any New Year’s Eve or Day traditions?

The meaning of Christmas

 

So here we are, on the eve of the year’s biggest holiday, Christmas. For some people that means frantic last minute shopping, cooking, wrapping, and baking. For some it means attending mass of some sort. And for most, it means spending time with family and friends. ‘Tis the season. Regardless of your religious beliefs, everyone can agree that Christmas tends to bring out the best in the world. From the many children’s-toy-related charities to swelling food bank donations to a spike in blood donors, the holiday spirit causes an outpouring of generosity, joy, love, and peace.

Tonight and tomorrow, we gather around the living room and tables, to eat, drink, share, and enjoy family and friends. My family has many traditions, one of which is a meatless Christmas Even dinner. There are shrimp and cookies while we await the completion of dinner. We make mushroom soup, the recipe for which has been handed down from my grandmother’s father from Slovakia, when he used to go out to the cow pastures and actually collect wild mushrooms. We have boatloads of pierogi, the potato-, onion-, or lekvar- filled doughy pillows of goodness.

After a leisurely dinner, which includes holiday ‘poppers’ with fun jokes, toys, and crowns to wear, we have an heirloom angel candle which gets passed around. Starting with the oldest person present, it is lit, and that person blows the candle out. If the smoke goes straight up, you will return next year. It’s always fun to try to make someone’s smoke go sideways, and we debate over the meaning when there is no smoke at all. Then we adjourn to the living room, where gifts are passed out, opened, exclaimed over, and photographed. Some years we open one at a time, some years everyone at once. But it is always boisterous and filled with love.
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If you’re worried about gifts, don’t be. Once the shiny newness wears off, most are discarded or forgotten soon after. The things that stick are the memories, the times and the laughs we share. A heartfelt, handwritten card is more meaningful than a $3 Hallmark card. A homemade batch of cookies or fudge is like a hug for your tastebuds. The hours of care that go into knitting a handmade scarf or afghan are appreciated more than thirty minutes at the mall. This Christmas, focus on the people and the experiences, and creating memories that will last.

Family time ideas for Christmas day

 

Start a new tradition

  • Try something like the Right/Left gift game to make gift exchanges more fun.
  • Go around the table and say what you’re most thankful for this year, or what next year’s resolution will be.
  • Go caroling around your neighborhood.
  • Make up your own words to carols and perform for your family and friends.
  • Drive around looking at Christmas lights.

Create a decoration

Make a large batch of popcorn and make it into a garland for the tree, collect pine branches and cones to create a homemade wreath, or paint a blank ornament for a yearly memento.

Bake-able ornaments:
4 cups flour
1 cup salt
1 1/2 cup water
2 tbsp cinnamon
2 tbsp vanilla

Mix all the ingredients, shape, and bake at 300 for 30 min. If you poke holes you can create hang-able ornaments for this year or next, or even gifts.

Volunteer

Nothing makes you feel more thankful for what you have than to serve those less fortunate. Volunteer at a local food bank, homeless shelter, battered women’s shelter, children’s school, animal shelter, bring cards/gifts/cookies to the elderly, police, or hospital, or whatever cause is near and dear to your heart. You will help make someone else’s Christmas brighter, and likely increase your own sense of joy and gratitude.

Sign up for a fun run/5K

These are great fun, and great for your health! Get out there with family members or friends and race with all the Santas and Rudolphs in the snow. You can dress up or just bundle up, and just have fun. It will help offset the huge dinner and several dozen cookies later too.

Super simple egg nog

History of eggnog: What’s in a name?

Egg Nog is one of the most popular beverages around Christmastime. But where did this dairy delight come from? There is plenty of debate but most sites agree that it is a descendant of the European beverage of “posset”, a popular beverage made with sweetened hot milk and wine. The original didn’t contain eggs, as dairy products were expensive and a rare commodity. In the Americas this wasn’t a problem, since most settlers kept their own cows and chickens, thus having plenty of access to both milk and eggs. Even today, the drink is far more popular in the US than the UK.
As for the “nog” part, CNN has an interesting article which puts forth three theories:
1. The word “noggin” describes the wooden mugs this beverage was often served in
2. The Norfolk slang word for strong ales served in these mugs was “nog”
3. In the early Americas, this drink was called “egg-and-grog”, which after having a few glasses morphed into “eggnnogg…”
 
Other countries have similar varieties, Time cites the Mexican “rompope” as well as the Puerto Rican version which adds coconut milk called “coquito”.
 
A perfectly valid excuse for consuming a carton by yourself is patriotism. Our forefather George Washington was quite fond of the drink, and the official White House recipe called for at least four types of liquor, a quart each cream and milk, one dozen tablespoons sugar and one dozen eggs. I can only imagine the holiday festivities after a few glasses of that…
 

Nutritional info

First of all, eggnog is traditionally made with whole, raw eggs. According to foodsafety.com, you can make a cooked egg base first then chill before mixing to be absolutely sure your nog is safe. According to popular belief, adding alcohol will kill any bacteria. But this is not true, so don’t count on copious amounts of rum or sherry to keep your eggnog sterile. If you have an immune deficiency or are paranoid about salmonella, you can use pasteurized eggs.
If you’re holding a frothy glass right now, you might want to skip over this part. But chances are even if you indulge, you do so with the awareness that eggnog is most certainly not a diet drink. Especially the sugar-stuffed, store-bought kind, which is only required to have 1% egg by the FDA to classify as eggnog. You can get up to 1/3 day’s worth of fat and cholesterol per glass depending on the brand. It is far better for you (and tastier, in my opinion) to whip up your own fresh. 
 
This recipe has only 250 calories, 2.5 g fat, 95 mg cholesterol, and a bonus 7.5 g protein per serving.
For an aged recipe that sounds wonderful (which I will try soon) see Alton Brown’s recipe on Mental Floss.
 
 
Ingredients:
2 cups milk
4 tbsp creamer (flavored kinds will add that extra something)
1 tbsp sugar
1 tbsp powdered sugar
2 whole large eggs
1 tbsp vanilla flavoring
Cinnamon & nutmeg to taste
*For an adult version, add 1 cup rum or liquor of choice

Step 1: Pour all the ingredients into a blender. Blend on high for a few seconds. Pour into a mug and dust with cinnamon. This makes enough for about 4 glasses.
Do you have any other favorite holiday drinks?

Easy Christmas Cookie Recipes

COOOOOOOKIES!!!

‘Tis the season to bake cookies, fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la. Then we eat them by the dozen, fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la.
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As December marches by and we scramble for last-minute gift ideas, deck the halls, and trim the tree, we also spend more time in the kitchen whipping up seasonal sweets and indulging in others at the office, family parties and get-togethers. Some are ambitious and organized and already have seven dozen of seven different kinds stocked away in the freezer. Others whip out the plastic at the bakery to save themselves time and hassle. 

This tree gave its life to make our living room look awesome last year.

But if there’s anything my family rocks at, it is Christmas baked goods! I was raised in a sugar-filled, flour-covered kitchen during the holidays and would have it no other way. We have plenty of unique cookies due to our Hunkie heritage (is that a real word? It means Slovak/Polish/Hungarian) like the finger-scalding Lily my aunt and brother sacrifice layers of skin for each year, the much-fought-over Clothespins using actual wooden clothespins which have the spring air of yesteryear soaked up inside them, the hours-long, love-filled process in which you can NEVER have too much apricot filling that creates epic Kolachi rolls,  and my personal favorite sugar-filled and sugar-coated diabetes-inducing dream, the simple, buttery, Cracker Cookie.

Christmas dessert spread, awwyeah.

I personally have assisted in the making of each of these treats in years past as well as several others, and as I’m sure you know there is quite a variety of difficulty levels in cookie-baking. But let me assure you that no matter how pressed for time, nor how tiny your kitchen, you can create some Santa-worthy treats in no time.

Pre-mixed dough

Your first option is of course the pre-mixed dough you cut and stick in the oven. I am definitely not going to scoff at that, most are darn tasty, plus you can save some in the fridge to just nibble on. Chocolate chip is of course a favorite, but sugar and other types have a strong presence too. They have rolls of it, blocks, whole tubs if you have an appetite or lots of guests. You can get creative with cut-outs and shapes, add your own mix-ins like coconut, mint, or toffee, or just go old-school.

Brickles and Brittles

Brickles and brittles are typically any liquid syrupy mixture poured over a solid base. The syrup hardens, and you then break it apart into chunks. There are many variations, and most are quite simple and quick. Here are three favorites:

Saltine cracker simple brickle
This disappears faster at our house than the paper wrapping off of gifts. It is overwhelmingly rich and sugary. You might want to make two batches…

Ingredients:
1 box of saltine crackers
1 cup sugar
1/2 pound butter
1 tsp vanilla
3 cups chocolate chips

1. Line a pan with heavy-duty foil and preheat oven to 350. Lay out the saltines in a single layer.
2. Melt the butter and sugar in a pan, stirring constantly. Once smooth and bubbling, remove from heat and stir in vanilla, quickly pour over the layer of crackers. 
3. Bake for 7 minutes, the sugar and butter will melt and bake into the crackers. Spread the chocolate chips evenly over the hot butter with a spatula and it will melt. Bake another 2 minutes, then let cool. Place in the freezer overnight, then break into pieces. Store refrigerated or frozen.

Peppermint Bark
For those who like white chocolate and enjoy the minty symbol of the season, the peppermint, this is a perfect present. With only five ingredients and two steps, you can have a batch of this made in about two hours. Just in time for guests to arrive, or to wrap up some in pretty packages for a party hostess gift.


Ingredients:
2 tbsp oil, divided
8 oz semisweet or dark chocolate
1/2 tsp peppermint extract
8 oz white chocolate, divided
25 crushed peppermint candies or 10 canes

1.  Grease a 9×9 pan and line with wax paper. In a double boiler melt the dark chocolate and 1 tbsp oil until smooth. When completely liquid, add 1/4 tsp peppermint extract and pour evenly into the covered pan. Spread half the peppermint over the chocolate and refrigerate until hard. 
2. In a double boiler melt the white chocolate and other tbsp oil. When smooth, add the other 1/4 tsp peppermint extract. Pour over the dark chocolate layer, and add the rest of the peppermint and press in. Refrigerate until fully hardened, and break into small pieces.


Peanut Brittle
This one is a bit more time intensive, but still simple. It is also a great frugal gift, everyone loves homemade candy. Be sure to have all the ingredients ready and measured out, you have no time to waste once begun. From BettyCrocker recipes.

Ingredients:
1 1/2 cup sugar
1 cup corn syrup
1 cup water
3 tbsp butter
1 pound unroasted peanuts
1 1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp water
1 tsp vanilla

1. Mix 1 tsp water, 1 tsp vanilla, and 1 1/2 tsp baking soda and set aside. Heat oven to 200 and keep two cookies sheets warm inside the oven. 
2. Mix sugar, water and corn syrup in a pan. Stir over medium heat until 240 or a small amount dropped into cold water forms a ball. 
3. Stir in butter and peanuts, cook further until 300 degrees or a small amount dropped into cold water forms brittle threads. 
4. Remove from heat, and quickly stir in baking soda mixture. Pour half mixture onto each heated cookie sheet, and let cool completely. Break into pieces and store in air-tight container.

My favorite no-bake recipe:

This chocolate peanut butter no-bake cookies recipe from AllRecipes is one of my favorites.

Ingredients:
1 3/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup butter
4 tbsp cocoa powder
1/2 cup peanut butter
3 cups quick-cook oats
1 tsp vanilla

1. Combine sugar, milk, butter and cocoa in a pot and bring to a boil for 1 1/2 minutes. The recipe cautions against boiling too long, or not long enough.
2. Remove from heat, stir in the peanut butter, oats and vanilla. Drop by teaspoonfuls onto wax paper and let cool.

Simple chocolate chip cookies

Chocolate chip, the classic all-American cookie. Amazing any time of the year, they are a crucial part of any holiday dessert spread. You can use semi-sweet, sweet- or dark chocolate chips, or get real crazy and use butterscotch, white chocolate, or a mixture. This quick recipe from Cookie-Smart makes about 2 dozen.

Ingredients:
2 cups flour
3/4 cup brown sugar
3/4 cup sugar
1 cup chips
1 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
1 egg
1/2 cup butter
1 tsp vanilla

1. Preheat the oven to 375. Mix the flour, sugars, chips, salt and baking soda in one bowl. In a separate bowl, mix the egg, melted butter and vanilla.
2. Mix both bowls together well, use your hands if you don’t mind. Dough should be slightly sticky yet firm. 
3. Drop by rounded tablespoons onto a greased cookie sheet or wax paper. Bake at 375 for 8-9 minutes until golden brown.

Simple sugar cookies  

Endlessly versatile, sugar cookie dough can have any number of mix-ins added to it. But it is also a classic on its own. Adapting to cookie cutters as though made for each other, sugar cookies can become blank canvases for snowmen, Santas, wreaths, and tree creations. This recipe from RealSimple is real simple.

Ingredients:
2 1/2 cups flour plus extra
1/4 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1 cup butter
3/4 cup sugar
1 egg
1 tsp vanilla

1. In a bowl, mix the flour, baking soda, and salt. In another bowl, beat the butter and sugar until smooth, then whisk in the egg. 
2. If you have a stand mixer, lucky you! Use that and slowly add in flour while mixing. Otherwise, loosen up those biceps and slowly mix the flour into the sugar/egg/butter mixture. Dough should be stiff. Refrigerate about an hour before rolling out to 1/4 inch thick and cutting into shapes.
3. Bake at 350 for 12-15 minutes, until beginning to brown. Let cool and decorate.

Turn round sugar cookies into snowmen with big marshmallows and creative decorating!

What about vegetarian/vegan goodies?


In case you are vegetarian/vegan or someone in your family is, there is this vegan, gluten-free version from TwoPeasAndTheirPod. By using almond milk and coconut oil it eliminates the butter and dairy products. I think shredded coconut comes from the devil, but if that’s your thing then enjoy!

The website OhSheGlows also has oodles of vegan, raw, lowfat, gluten-free, etc recipes so check it out!


Do you have any simple to make holiday treats you wait all year long to indulge in?

Avoiding Holiday Overeating

 

You’ve made it through Thanksgiving with a few pounds of meat, stuffing, potatoes, beans, cranberry and pie stuffed into your stomach. If you still made it under your daily expected calorie allowance, great job! We’re all proud of you. If you didn’t, welcome to 90% of America. But don’t despair. Even if you had that extra slice (or three) of pecan pie, you still have time to make up for it before we ring in 2014. 

But how can I avoid overeating? you may ask, since Christmas is just around the corner, and everywhere I go tempting cookies, cakes, candies and buffets will be shoved in my face 24/7? Never fear, dear readers, I have scoured the internets and personal experiences to come up with ways you can avoid the “December 15” (like the Freshman 15, except it accumulates every year and intramural soccer plus late teen metabolism no longer gets rid of it over spring break).

15 Tips to Avoid Overeating During the Holidays
 1. Have a plan
The best way to avoid any food traps is to have a plan of attack. Where are you going, an office party, a family reunion, a friend’s big bash? If you’ve been to a similar event, you’ll have an idea of what types and portions of food will be served. Decide ahead of time how much you expect to indulge, put that amount on your plate, then avoid the food tables the rest of the night.

2. Plan exercise
Part of a successful holiday weight maintenance plan is to follow your exercise routine, or start a new one. If you normally run three days a week, put it in your calendar in pen, and keep that appointment with yourself. Even though holidays are crazy busy and all about spending time with family and friends, don’t forget that YOU time is important too. You can also make a more conscious effort to be more active in general. Go up and down the stairs for each ingredient you need, do squats while you mix dough, play with the pups or kids in the snow (or leaves, whatever your weather) and take an after-dinner stroll each day.

3. Bring your own snacks or meals
If you are going to a potluck, great! Whip up a healthy casserole or slow cooker dish you know won’t damage your waistline if you have seconds. Stuff a small bag of nuts, cut veggies or fruit, or granola bars in your purse. That way you can tame cravings if hunger strikes without having a gallon of egg nog with bacon-wrapped-ham and double cheddar mashed potatoes.

4. Don’t skip meals
Remember that trying not to gain weight is NOT an excuse to skip meals. This actually slows your metabolism because you’re essentially telling your body that food is scarce now, to which it responds by holding onto every morsel you do eat in the form of fat. Be smart about what you eat, but please do continue to eat. Especially breakfast.

5. Be realistic 
It isn’t always possible to bring baby carrots and have a salad only while those around you nom on piles of holiday treats. Sometimes you have to judge the options and simply choose the best of what’s available. Holidays are busy, so there will also be days where you just can’t cook a healthy meal for yourself or don’t want to bother thinking about it. Just keep an eye on portion sizes and moderation is always key.

6. Allow occasional indulgence
As above, this is also important in “real” life. No one is perfect, we all have that holiday treat or two we wait all year for. Whether it’s Aunt Mary’s peanut brittle, grandma’s perfect pecan pie, or your family recipe for the perfect cookie, make sure to build into your holiday eating plan some indulgences. This helps keep you on track the rest of the time.

7. Know your limits & when to say no
If there is a treat that you just cannot help yourself around, be mindful of that and remove the temptation. If you know you will eat every gingersnap in sight, don’t bake or buy nine dozen and leave them out on the table. Also don’t accept and eat food just to be polite or out of a feeling of obligation. Learn how to say no politely, or thank you and then move the treat along to someone else who will enjoy it.

8. Browse and graze
Before you hit a holiday buffet guns blazing and head back to your table with five plates full to the brim, take a lap. See what is there and prioritize the foods by what you like and don’t get to eat as often, then focus on those dishes. Had green bean casserole seven times in the past week? Don’t waste space on your plate and stomach. Don’t really like stuffing but feel its necessary? Forget about it. On a similar note, you don’t have only one chance to eat each day. Pick a few tiny samples of things that look good and try them. Then stop. You can always go back for more or to try different things.

9. Focus on experiences, not the food
Rather than giving in to the holiday food-frenzy, make the season about the experiences. Take a walk in the wintry air, pick out a tree, share holiday stories with friends, or drive around to look at light displays. Anything to take the focus off the sugar rush all around and create memories that will live in your mind and not in your abdomen.

10. Drink lots of water
This is just a solid tip every day of the year. Water is fantastic for your skin, hair, digestion, immunity, and more. It also helps you stay satisfied; a lot of the time we mistake hunger for thirst without realizing it. Drink a big glass with lemon when you wake up, sip on some hot tea by the fire, have a glass between each alcoholic beverage, challenge your cousin to a chugging contest. Do whatever it takes to get your daily 8 glass minimum.

11. Fill up on fruits and veggies
If there are any fresh, raw options, those are always your best bet. Allow some heavier foods too, but fill the majority of your plate with salad, cut veggies, and raw fruit. If you fill up on three cups of veggies, you’re still probably only 300 calories into your day!

12. Skip dips, dressings and gravy
Some of the worst health offenders are well-known. Gravy, ranch dressings, fruit or veggie dips, anything cream or oil based. If you must have gravy on your potatoes, just go easy.
They will taste fine with 1/4 cup versus 1 1/2 cups.

13. Observe yourself
Pay attention to trigger foods or situations. Don’t allow yourself to hang around near the food tables. Don’t eat if you aren’t hungry, just because the leftovers are there. Distract yourself by chatting with family you only see once a year, or making a new office friend.

14. Limit alcohol
Alcohol is a two-fold danger. For one, it has fairly high amounts of calories alone, and if you’re the type to enjoy fruity mixed beverages rather than the straight stuff the calorie count can become absurd quickly. A 100 calorie shot or a 900 calorie peppermint kahlua with cream are both excess calories that don’t leave you feeling full. Secondly, alcohol lowers our inhibitions. Who hasn’t gotten the “drunchies” after a night of partying hard, only to regret the next morning the 5000 calories’ worth of tacos we ate at 3am? As above, drink a glass of water between each beverage, choose wine or hard liquor in small quantities, and behave yourself. Mostly.

15. Analyze your reasons
There are so many varied reasons for over-eating, what is it that prompts you to pick up that fork again? Are you hurt by family pokes about your current weight? Does being home make you feel like a kid again and you’re seeking comfort? Do you feel left out if you don’t stuff yourself? Are you afraid that you’ll never have access to this particular kind of cookie again so you must eat two dozen tonight? Ask yourself why, be honest with the answers, and then be rational in how to deal with the issues.

Don’t forget: Forgive yourself for slip-ups
We are all human. That’s a fact of life, we all have goals and ideals, but we all will sometimes mess up. And that is OK. Really. If you just ate three days’ worth of food in one sitting before you even realized it, just acknowledge it happened, think about why, and resolve to not let it happen again. And probably seek some help for the severe stomachache you now have.

For more great articles on holiday overeating and how to avoid it:

California Pacific Medical Center
GroupHealth
AmIhungry.com
Prevention Magazine
Huffington Post

 
 
How do you say “no” to seconds of the holiday ham or cookies that are calling your name?

Thanksgiving is for thanks-giving

 

In my previous post about Thanksgiving on a budget, I laid out the history of the North American Thanksgiving holiday. While it’s taken quite a while to get to this point, the more recent incarnation of this holiday has been centered around giving thanks for what we have. Or at least it should be. As with most holidays in the US, the big companies try to take over and commercialize the living daylights out of everything.

Now we can buy decorations, tablecloths, dinnerware, and all manner of turkey-themed knicknacks. The President of the United States even gets to issue a T-day proclamation and “pardon” a turkey, which ensures that particularly lucky bird will spend the rest of its life roaming freely and not trussed, stuffed, and roasted on a dinner table. Though there has been some suspicion involved in that whole process. The Huffington Post wrote a story last year about the fates of previously pardoned turkeys. Mental Floss also wrote a thorough post on the whole history of Presidential poultry pardoning.

There are also plenty of companies out there offering to cook part or all of your holiday meal. While that may be a good option if you’re hosting a huge amount of people and would rather spend time with them than spend thirty straight hours in a kitchen, that is not the case for most people.

And honestly, this holiday should be about spending time with your loved ones. They won’t care if you don’t have a perfect spiral, smoked, honey baked ham, if the turkey skin isn’t just-right crispy, if the stuffing is a little dry (that’s what gravy is for). We tend to put so much stress and importance on the perfect meal that we forget the purpose of having it: to be thankful. To count our blessings. To spend time with people we care about and share a meal together.

There have been tons of psychological experiments on the psychological and physical benefits of an “Attitude of Gratitude” with more being published all the time. People who practice gratitude consistently report stronger immune systems, more joy, optimism, and less feelings of loneliness. The Huffington Post wrote a great article on 10 Reasons Why Being Thankful Is Good For You. The reasons include better sleep, better grades, better relationships, improved heart health, and boosted immunity.

Gratitude has been purported to help in many chronic health diseases like depression, CFIDS and Fibromyalgia. The CFIDS & Fibromyalgia website has an article summarizing a well-know gratitude book “Thanks!: How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier” by Robert Emmons. The NYTimes also wrote a nice article about the main points in Emmons’ book.
 
The CFIDS & Fibromyalgia website also included a 5-point list of things you can do in your life to increase gratitude right now. To sum it up:

5 Things You Can Do To Increase Gratefulness Now

1. Keep a daily gratitude journal. Write down 3-5 things every day you are thankful for. You only need a sentence, and it could be as simple as the sunrise to a hug from a friend to a raise. 

2. Use a visual reminder. People are forgetful little things, out of sight out of mind. Write yourself post-its of all the good things and people in your life. Set an alarm to go off at different intervals to remind you to take a thank-you break.

3. Have a gratitude partner. Any habit is easier to maintain if you have accountability. Plus gr-attitudes are contagious. Make a point to cultivate relationships with other thankful people. One of your daily gratitudes can then be your thankfulness partner.

4. Make a public commitment. This goes along with #3 but is directly related to achievable goals and should be made more public, like a weekly thankful Facebook status, family, or join a support group.

5. Change your self-talk. Also known as an inner monologue, this is the voice running constantly in the back of your mind. Most people have lower mood when that voice is negative, “you’re not good enough”, “you’ll never lost that weight”, “that raise isn’t gonna happen”, etc. With conscious practice, you can rewrite the script to be more kind to yourself and the other people in your life. 

This list is at my desk in lab, where I see it every day.

 

The University of California, Berkeley is launching a 3-year long, $6.5 million initiative: Expanding the Science and Practice of Gratitude. This project aims to increase scientific knowledge of the process and benefits of gratefulness as well as to educate the general public on current knowledge and future findings. They will be exploring everything from the neuroscience of gratitude to gratefulness in romantic relationships to how thankfulness may reduce bullying. All good stuff I think. You can find out more about the project here.

So if the stuffing is a little dry, be thankful you have stuffing at all. If the bird is slightly burnt, be thankful the nine hours of roasting killed any harmful bacteria on it. If the family feud begins somewhere between “grace” and “pass the pumpkin pie”, be grateful you have a family to share this day with in the first place. I am so very grateful for my family, my amazing mother and grandmother who taught me how to cook and supported me through burnt popcorn and un-jelled Jello. My dad for teaching me the value of a dollar and good financial practices. My many friends and roommates over the years who suffered through many first attempts at recipes and recipe creations.
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I am thankful for the ability to get in my working car, drive to a store which is less than twenty minutes away, fill a cart with fresh, tasty foods, and pay for it without worrying about overdrawing my credit. I am thankful that I now have the ability to cook healthy, hearty, delicious meals, and the ability to share that with the internet world. I will be giving many thanks this Thursday, and I hope you will too.
Thank you for reading! Happy Thanksgiving, readers.
More info:
For more information on ways gratitude is good for you, research, and ways to feel more thankful, check out Harvard Health’s article: In Praise of Gratitude, Psychology Today about Giving thanks: The benefits of gratitude, Happier Human’s blog The 31 Benefits of Gratitude You Didn’t Know About, and Berkeley’s video clip on the benefits of gratitude from Robert Emmon’s himself.

 

Please share: What are you grateful for?

 

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Thanksgiving Meal Under $20

 

The time of giving thanks is approaching! Everyone knows the beloved American holiday featuring a rather large, ugly bird. Kids drawn pictures of feathered Native Americans and buckle-hatted Pilgrims gathered around the cornucopia and a turkey drawn from your hand’s outline. 


But like most American holidays the original meaning has become commercialized and veered a bit from the original. The first Thanksgiving meal happened in fall of 1621, sometime between mid-September and mid-November. It was to give thanks for a successful harvest, and the Pilgrims joined the local Wampanoag tribe to eat fowl, fish and deer, and probably local plants like berries, plums and boiled pumpkin. 

After that, it was not immediately a national holiday. That didn’t happen until George Washington proclaimed Thursday, November 26, 1789, a “day of public thanksgiving and prayer” in honor of our new nation and brand new Constitution. Even then the holiday was not a set annual day. During Lincoln’s presidency, when he needed a way to unite the states, he turned to Sarah Josepha Hale, writer of the famous “Mary Had a Little Lamb” rhyme. She thought the holiday would be a way to infuse the nation with hope and belief in itself and the Constitution. Thus Lincoln declared the last Thursday in November a national holiday.

FDR caused a bit of a ruckus when he tried to change the date, causing TWO Thanksgivings in 1939 and 1940. Sounds awesome, two days of paid vacation, stuffing yourself and football right? Not so much, because some states kept the traditional date while others followed the President. Thus it caused some familiar discord as people had different days off, schools had to reschedule tests and vacations, and it sure is lucky airplanes weren’t around yet, because that would have caused a lot of date-change booking fees. Congress finally got around to making it into law that the fourth Thursday of November was the official and forever Thanksgiving Day.

If you’re heading into T-Day with a lot of things to be thankful for, but a large bank balance isn’t one of them, fear not. You can still have a stellar feast, and for less than an Andrew Jackson. 

 

Now, for the remainder of this post I will make a few assumptions. Don’t be offended if they don’t apply to you. Adjust the advice accordingly.

1. You will be feeding 2-4 people.
2. You want turkey and not a ham.
3. You want the most “traditional” American dishes.
4. You have twenty dollars.
5. You have basic cooking equipment and knowledge.
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Ok, so for the “traditional” American feast, the most common dishes are:
*The Turkey
*Stuffing
*Mashed Potatoes
*Green Bean Casserole
*Cranberry Sauce
*Pumpkin Pie
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That’s what we need to make, as inexpensively as possible. If those don’t sound right or aren’t quite what you want, try here for thousands more Thanksgiving day recipes. 
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*The Turkey (free – $7)
Here we have a few options. You aren’t likely to find a whole bird under $20. There are a few ways around it. Some stores run specials leading up to T-day such that you purchase a certain amount of groceries and get a free bird. If you had planned spending $100 in groceries into your budget anyways, pick up that free bird! If not, you still have choices. One option is to purchase only turkey drumsticks rather than the whole bird. I just saw these at a store, four drums for $5-7. Your other option is to purchase mini hens/ducks or a whole chicken. If the people you’re cooking for won’t care what type of fowl they eat, this can get you a bird for $4-7 as well.

*Stuffing ($1 – $3)
If you’re good with boxed types, keep an eye on sales. These can be picked up for $1 or less per box, and you’ll probably need at least two. If you want to make your own, you’ll need a loaf of stale bread, 2 cups stock, seasoning, and 1 cup diced & sauteed celery/carrot/onion. all together the ingredients shouldn’t cost more than $3. Mix it all and bake at 350 inside the bird or in a casserole dish for 30-40 minutes.

*Mashed Potatoes ($1 – $3)
Again, if you don’t mind the boxed stuff, I’ve seen this at the dollar store as well as on sale for $1 or less. To make your own, peel and dice about a pound of potatoes per person. Boil the potatoes in salted water until soft, about 10 minutes. Drain and put back into the pot. Mash or use a hand blender. Add in garlic salt, butter, sour cream, and/or milk to your desired taste and consistency.

*Green Bean Casserole ($2)
A good old stand by favorite, this is nothing more than a can of cut green beans mixed with a can of cream of mushroom sauce. If you’ve been good about sales you should be able to get at least two cans of each for less than $2. You can also be fancy and use a pound or two of fresh green beans, cleaned and boiled. The fanciest is to add some french friend onions or crushed potato chips on top.

*Cranberry Sauce ($1 – $2)
Buy a can of this jello like fruity goop for $1 or less, it will probably not all be eaten. Or you can get yourself a bag of fresh cranberries on sale. Mix 1 cup water, 1 cup sugar and the cranberries in a sauce pot. Bring to a boil, then simmer for about ten minutes, or until cranberries burst. At this point you can add anything you like, such as cinnamon or nutmeg, chopped almonds or pecans, orange zest or blueberries or raisins. Cool and then put in the refrigerator until served.
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*Pumpkin Pie ($1 – $3)
If you get lucky and find a frozen or fresh pie on sale you like, go for it. However if you want the homemade touch, take 1 can pumpkin puree, 1 can sweetened condensed milk, 2 eggs, and pumpkin pie spice (or combination cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice) and a pie crust. Mix all ingredients and pour into the crust. Bake at 425 for 15 minutes, then reduce heat to 350 and bake another 30-45 minutes, until set.
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Total: $6 – $20
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So you see you can indeed enjoy an all-American thankful feast for under $20. Also of note, there are lots of things that go on deep sale during the holidays that you use other times of the year. If you’re an avid baker and find a 4 for $1 sale on condensed milk, snap that up! If celery is .50 per pound, buy a whole bunch and freeze some for soup, or use it at Christmas. Especially if you have a big freezer, when the birds left are taking up space the day after Thanksgiving, head to the grocery store after your Black Friday shopping for steep discounts on fowl, and freeze it for Christmas or any time of the year. Happy bargain-hunting!
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If you have any budget-friendly holiday tips, please share!
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Easy Halloween Themed Treats (no tricks!)

 

Halloween is easily one of my favorite holidays. I love to dress up, I love cooking and eating, I love candy (who doesn’t?!?) and I love throwing parties. And I have a confession: I’m in my mid-twenties, and I went trick-or-treating last year. Don’t judge just because you’re jealous. Never say no to free candy (unless given to you by a creepy stranger. Wait a minute…)

This year I decided to throw a Halloween party for some friends, and began planning far in advance. I love cute themed dishes, and picked some of the simplest sounding ones. I made a big list of what I thought was the best ideas, and didn’t really keep any recipes, I just made it like I thought it should be made. But if you’re the type who wants a list and steps to follow, then continue reading below and enjoy! If you have a favorite Halloween or fall-themed dish, please share in the comments! (Or email me with “Halloween treat” in the subject heading). The one I think sounds tastiest may appear on a future post!

Mystery Shots
These were test tubes filled with all sorts of delicious and terrifying ingredients! I had coffee, soy sauce, sriracha, dish soap, eggnog, orange juice, apple juice, grape juice, cranberry juice, water, rum, vodka, juiced carrot, cabbage or bell pepper. Obviously if the party involves kids don’t use alcohol and maybe not as many gross ones. But get creative, you can put in whatever you want! And use food coloring to hide the natural color of things, it keep them guessing.

Blood & Guts Potato Skins
Wash as many potatoes as you’ll have guests and cut potatoes in half. Spray a baking pan and bake cut-side down at 350 for about an hour. Scoop out the cooked insides and place in a bowl. Add a can of tomato sauce and salsa until stuffing is reddish and goopy. The salsa is supposed to make it look like chunks of gore. Re-fill the skins and bake another 10-15 minutes, serve. I added some refried beans to some, thinking it looked kind of like mud.

String Cheese Severed Fingers
Cut string cheese in half, use a knife to carve knuckles about halfway down. Make a slice half an inch from the edge, and insert a slivered almond as the ‘nail’.

Mummy Dogs
By far the most adorable thing, and likely the only way I’ll ever make pigs in a blanket from now on. Cut hot dogs in half. Unroll a tube of crescent dough and make half inch slices. Wrap a small piece around the top, and a larger piece around the bottom 2/3. Bake at 350 for 10-15 minutes, until golden brown. Use mustard or ketchup to draw eyes.

Monster Wedges
Cut unpeeled, washed apples into quarters such that they can still stand alone. Remove the seeds and stem. Cut another small wedge halfway down, insert slivered almonds randomly for teeth. Use whatever candy and either syrup or cream cheese or peanut butter to stick on eyes.

Severed Hand ice cubes
For these, you need some gloves and some time. Fill gloves with water and tie well, put in freezer for several hours. When it’s floating in your beverage, they look like severed hands. I used cranberry juice to make a red, ‘bloody’ one, you can use food coloring in the water for any color.

On the topic of beverages, dry ice is definitely worth investing in! It was only $1.29 per pound at my local grocery store, and 5 pounds was plenty to last the whole night, throwing in small pieces as they evaporated. It bubbles and smokes, and causes real ‘cauldron’ noises! People of all ages are guaranteed to be fascinated by this.

Orange and Black Fruit Kebabs with Toffee Dip
Alternate chopped cantaloupe with blackberries and blueberries to create colorful skewers. The dip is 1 package cream cheese, softened at room temperature, 1 tsp cinnamon and nutmeg, 1/4 cup coffee creamer in some holiday flavor (caramel, apple, toffee, pumpkin, etc) and 3/4 cup brown sugar. Mix well, and sprinkle toffee bits over top. You could also drizzle on caramel, mix in a tub of whipped cream, or mix toffee or chocolate into the dip. Party-goers said this should be eaten with a spoon!

Dirt Cake
Make a package or 2 of chocolate pudding and refrigerate. Crush up a handful of Oreos in a plastic bag with a rolling pin or your fist and sprinkle on top as the ‘dirt’. Add gummy worms and viola! A dessert no kid (or grown-up) can resist. You can get creative and add mini tombstones, trees, ghosts etc to look like a real graveyard too.

Doritos Pumpkin Cheese Ball
Unfortunately I didn’t get a picture of this, but trust me when I say it is adorable! Mix 2 packs cream cheese, softened, with onion soup mix or dried onion, 1/4 cup sour cream and 2 tbsp ranch dressing. Make it into a ball, roll it in mashed-up doritos chips, wrap in plastic and refrigerate at least an hour before serving. Use the stem of a green bell pepper as the pumpkin top.

 Have a spook-tacular Halloween!