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Homemade With Love

Magic Wands
These dipped pretzels satisfy both sweet and salty cravings. Our kid testers loved them and did most of the preparation. Arrange wands in a brightly colored mailing tube or cellophane bags tied with ribbon.

Prep Time: 5 Minutes
Yield: 24 Wands

Ingredients:
2½ cups candy melting chips in desired colors or chocolate chips
Two 8-oz packages pretzel rods
Assorted sprinkles and sanding sugars and tiny decorative candies

1. Line 2 baking sheets with waxed paper. Place the candy chips in a microwave-safe bowl and zap, uncovered, for 1 minute. Stir, then zap for additional 15-second intervals, stirring after each, until chips are melted.
2. Stir well and let cool for about 10 minutes. Stir again, to get rid of any lumps. To make a wand, dip pretzel rod in the melted candy, or drizzle the candy onto each pretzel with a spoon, leaving about a quarter of the stick uncoated. (This will be your handle.) While the coating is still wet, add decorations.
3. Place finished wands on baking sheets to dry. The candy coating will harden at room temperature in about 30 minutes, or in the refrigerator in 10 minutes. Store wands at room temperature, in an airtight container, up to 1 week. 

Mint Hot-Chocolate Cheer
Showcase this holiday drink mix in a glass container—recycle mason-style jars, juice bottles, or vintage glass milk bottles found at tag sales.

Prep Time: 5 Minutes
Yield: 4 cups of mix, or about 8 servings

Ingredients:
2/3 cup sugar
1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 1/3 cups nonfat dry milk powder
1 2/3 cups mint-flavored chocolate chips
2 Tbs crushed peppermint hard candy

Layer ingredients in the order listed in a 1-quart bottle. Seal with lid and/or paper cupcake liner "hat" and attach a card with preparation directions.

To Prepare:

Pour the contents of the bottle into a large saucepan. Add 3-1/2 cups low-fat milk or water. Stir over medium heat until all of the candy pieces are melted and the drink is creamy and hot. Pour into mugs. Add some marshmallows and a peppermint-stick stirrer, if desired.

Sweet Snowflakes
Pre-rolled pie-crust dough leaves you more time for the fun of decorating. Place crackers in Chinese takeout containers, or arrange them on a tray and cover with colored cellophane.

Prep Time: 10 Minutes
Baking Time: 8 Minutes
Yield: About 48 Crackers

Ingredients:
15-oz package of 2 pre-rolled, 9-inch pie crusts
Nonstick cooking spray
Cinnamon sugar

1. Let crusts stand at room temperature for 15 minutes. Coat 2 baking sheets with nonstick spray or line them with parchment paper.
2. Unfold 1 crust on each baking sheet. Press out fold lines with your fingers or a rolling pin. Return crusts to refrigerator until chilled and firm again, about 10 minutes.
3. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Working with 1 sheet at a time and keeping dough on the baking sheet, cut out snowflake shapes with cookie cutters. Gently remove leftover dough and separate the cutout shapes on the sheet, leaving about a half inch between each shape. (If dough begins to soften, return it to the refrigerator for a few minutes.) Sprinkle with cinnamon sugar. Prick each cracker a few times with a toothpick or fork.
4. Bake for 5 to 8 minutes, until lightly browned. Let cool completely on sheets before serving.
TIP: For the crispiest crackers, use small cutters (1½ to 2 inches). They're also easier for kids to handle.

Nutty Delight
It's a treat to make these sugar-crusted nuts: They infuse your home with the scents of cinnamon and sugar. Experiment with other nuts-such as pecans-or combine cooled nuts with dried cranberries or toasted coconut. Arrange in small tins for gifts.

Prep Time: 15 Minutes
Baking Time: 30 Minutes
Cooling Time: 30 Minutes
Yield: 5½ Cups

Ingredients:
4 cups whole, raw almonds
Butter (to grease pans)
1 egg white
1/3 cup white granulated sugar
1/3 cup dark-brown sugar, packed
2 Tbs vanilla extract
½ tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp salt

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spread almonds in a single layer in baking pan. Bake 8 to 10 minutes, until lightly toasted. Remove from oven and cool completely, about 30 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 300 degrees.
2. Generously grease 2 baking pans. In a large bowl, whisk egg white until foamy. Whisk in sugars, vanilla, cinnamon, and salt. Stir in almonds; toss until well coated. Divide nuts between pans, spreading them out in a single layer.
3. Bake for 10 minutes. Remove from oven, stir, and separate almonds that are stuck together. (Nuts will be very sticky now but will become crisp as they cool.) Return to oven and bake another 10 to 12 minutes, until nuts are a pale golden brown and appear dry. Remove from oven and let sit for 3 to 5 minutes.
4. When nuts begin to harden, quickly loosen them from the pan with a metal spatula and spread out on waxed paper to finish cooling. Separate into individual pieces or small clusters. Store in an airtight container up to 1 week.

Instant Holiday-Cookie Kit
This recipe makes 2 logs of durable sugar-cookie dough—one to give and one for your family. For a gift, wrap dough in cellophane and tie ends. Put in plastic box with jars of sprinkles and colored sugar, cookie cutters, and how-to's (with reminder to chill or freeze dough until ready to use).

Prep Time: 10 Minutes
Baking Time: 10 Minutes
Yield: About 48 Cookies

Ingredients:
1 stick (½ cup) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup sugar
1 egg
3 Tbs milk
2 tsp vanilla
2½ to 3 cups flour
2 tsp baking powder
¼ tsp salt

1. Using an electric mixer, cream butter and sugar. Add egg, milk, and vanilla; beat until light and fluffy. Add flour, baking powder, and salt, beating until blended. Add more flour, if needed, until dough comes together and isn't sticky.
2. With lightly floured hands, divide dough in half and form into 7-inch logs. Wrap and refrigerate until firm, about 2 hours.

To prepare: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Let dough soften at room temperature, about 10 minutes. On a floured surface, roll dough ¼ inch thick. With flour-dusted cookie cutters, press out shapes and place 1 inch apart on ungreased baking sheets. Decorate as desired. Bake 7 to 10 minutes, or until edges are golden. Remove cookies from sheets and cool on racks. Re-roll dough scraps, cut out, and bake, using up all the dough.
TIP: In a pinch, simply chill and slice dough before baking, rather than rolling and using cookie cutters.

Photos: Jim Franco
 

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