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Monday, December 19, 2011

Caramel Corn

This recipe is a classic.  I didn't think I liked caramel corn until my neighbor Beckie brought this to us several years ago.  I ate almost the whole tin before anyone else even got to try some.  When I ran back down to Beckie's house to ask her for the recipe she acted a bit surprised as if there is nothing special about this recipe.  She could've also acted surprised because I was quite winded from running and standing in her kitchen holding an empty Christmas tin.

Anyway, she shared and there isn't really anything special about this recipe. No secret weird ingredients or pudding mixes [in case you've missed previous baking posts...I LOVE pudding mix]. I think this just happens to be a simple recipe [butter, brown sugar, popcorn mostly] with really good instructions.

I dare you to try it, I've made this for reluctant caramel corn eaters who have surprisingly been won over.  I've included the recipe at the bottom, but will walk you through the steps first.....

First put your butter, brown sugar, karo syrup, and a bit of salt in a saucepan.  The pan needs to be pretty big because this mixture puffs up later....stay tuned.  Turn it on medium high and stay close, stirring every little bit.

While keeping an eye on the butter/sugar/syrup mixture go ahead and start popping your corn.  [snicker - not sure why - I guess saying "start popping your corn" kinda cracks me up]. Two bags of full size microwave popcorn will work, I popped about 1 cup in my air popper and nearly overflowed my specially bought caramel popcorn metal bowl....maybe a heaping 3/4 cup would be best.  If unpopped kernels bother you, sort through the popped corn and pick them out.

After a few really frustrating attempts at caramel corn I bought this big metal bowl.  It holds 8 quarts and is just right. You need a big 8 quart bowl, the end.

Now put in your walnuts.....these are super fantastic after they've been roasted with the yummy caramel.

Meanwhile back on the stovetop, your butter mixture should just begin to boil and will look like this.  As soon as you see these little bubbles in the middle set your timer for 5 minutes and give this caramel your full attention stirring it often to scrape the bottom and sides really well.  When you put butter and sugar together......they make beautiful caramel [unless you forget them and walk away - then things get ugly really quickly, they are kinda high maintenance that way].

At the end of 5 minutes, your mixture will look like's gonna be yum!

When the timer rings, take your caramely goodness off the heat and stir in the baking soda, stirring well.  It will puff up and turn this light color.

Now it's time to pour this great good caramel over the popcorn and stir to coat.  Resist the urge to stick your fingers into this stuff.  It is so hot, but I can never quite wait.  I get burned every time I make caramel corn.  

Patience, I know.

When I make caramel corn I line a jelly roll pan with foil and spray it very well with Pam.  After the popcorn is all coated I pour it onto this pan and put it in the oven.  I let it bake for 15 minutes and then take it out and turn it and break it up a little bit and put it back in the oven for 15 more minutes (you'll do this three times so that it bakes for 1 hour total).

This is what it looks like after you've let it cool a little bit.  This is so good!  Great for gifts too....Enjoy!

Caramel Corn
Beckie Hall
2 bags microwave popcorn, pop and remove kernels or 3/4 cup unpopped corn
2 cups walnut halves
2 cups packed brown sugar
½ cup white Karo syrup
½ lb (2 sticks) real butter....don’t use margarine!
1 tsp salt
½ tsp baking soda
Heat sugars, butter, Karo syrup, and salt in a medium saucepan.  Once mixture just starts to boil, set timer for 5 minutes and stir constantly.  After 5 minutes, remove from heat and stir in soda....mix well.  Pour caramel syrup over popcorn and nuts in a very large bowl!  Stir until well coated.  Spread on a jellyroll pan or large cookie sheet with sides.  I line mine with foil or parchment paper and spray with Pam.  Bake at 250 degrees for 1 hour, stirring every 15 minutes. 

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

An Advent Lesson

This post is about how we are celebrating Advent this year, sort of.  Mostly it's a lesson I learned while preparing to do Advent this year.  And by preparing I mean deciding on November 30th that we were going to have a little Advent lesson with our kids every night for 25 nights.

Yeah, right.

Years ago I started out with those intentions, and planned exceedingly and maddeningly accordingly.  Then I moved us to a weekly Advent (but that had to start by the last weekend in November), so I switched it to a "every night-ish for the four nights before Christmas" schedule which had to be modified and ultimately dropped.  I studied and researched and wrote and shared and decorated and taught it...but when it came time to actually do it at home, it never happened easily and I felt like a huge failure.  So I've been focusing on other ways to bring the true meaning of Christmas into our family the last couple of years and He's been sure (as always) to make Himself known when I look for Him.

When your life is about Jesus, 
of course your Christmas is too....

But Advent hasn't really been on my radar.  Quite honestly I'd grown a bit cynical about the whole thing.  I'd digressed to the point of eye-rolling and toddler fussing when I ran across a beautiful and involved Advent idea on a blog or on face book.  Something along the lines of "As if."

So this year, we finish Thanksgiving and my husband and I are out to lunch on the last day of November [the LAST day of November, my over-planning sisters are feeling my pain here].  We are talking about Christmas plans coming up and he says, "We should do Advent with the kids."  Insert previous paragraph running through my mind along with "yeah like we could plan an entire month of Advent lessons by tomorrow" and end with me saying, "Shuuurre, honey."  But he wasn't giving up this idea and started throwing out these fabulous ideas. So he paid the bill and we headed to Wal-mart to buy teaching props for 25 days of unplanned Advent lessons with our three children ages 4-14.  I did slow him down enough to brainstorm some ideas in the parking lot before we went in.  I grabbed an envelope that was lingering in my purse, wrote numbers down one side, and a beautiful thing happened.  We sat there and made up 25 little teaching points about real Christmas.  Not our favorite memories or reasons we love the season; 25 reasons we love Jesus and the story of His miraculous arrival to our troubled little world.  As we both threw out ideas and I jotted and scribbled, my heart filled with joy.  Not happy joy as all my little organized and researched Advent ideas went out the window, but humbly corrected joy. Joy because I was sitting in a car with a man who loves Jesus enough to know His story and creatively tell it to our children.  Seriously people, that could be The End.

As I happily drove home later, I began to plan how I would type up our ideas and add a few little things just to clarify and keep us on track, you know.  And then I was reminded of that humble joy and I knew that this was not to be messed with in any way.  I was only to follow, and I have. We've had six semi-planned, semi-spontaneous, semi-short, sometimes silly, Scripture-filled, amazing little life lessons about Jesus.

And the Mom-sized lessons keep coming.  I had decided I would just try to keep our youngest from being a distraction so the older two could really learn and participate.  On Day 4 we read the genealogy of Jesus from Matthew (I'm totally not teasing...we did that, we are such Bible nerds.)  When the kids opened the box that night there was a fishing worm and a butterfly ornament.  We shared the stories of the five women in Jesus' heritage and the truth that God takes things that are ugly and makes them beautiful.  As we hung the butterfly on the tree and asked our kids some questions to see if they understood our four year old piped up, "God takes mean things and makes them beautiful butterflies" And she said it like only a four year old girl can say the phrase beeyootiful butterflies.  Be-still my heart.

So here's an un-Advent lesson on marriage from my last couple of weeks of living:

If you love Jesus and aren't yet married; 
Marry a man that you can follow.  
One who, when he is really following God, 
is hard to keep pace with.
and will forgive you for ending a phrase with a preposition....

If you love Jesus and are already married; 
Give your husband room to lead your family.  
Don't over-plan, 
Don't smother him with expectations, 
Don't re-do his efforts.
Choose to follow.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Pistachio Christmas Trees

I'm so excited about sharing this while I was making these little cookies my husband came into the kitchen and saw that I was blogging (camera on the kitchen counter is the give away I guess).  As I was using a cookie cutter to make little green Christmas trees he commented that he wondered if what I was doing was harder than it looked pondering what the cookies would look like if he were in charge of the project.  Our four year old answered him with, "Yes, yours would probably look like snowmen."  I would be willing to guarantee that the chances of seeing snowmen cookies on Todd's blog are, um.....well, not happening.

But, I want to assure those of you in charge of the cookie projects in your home that you can make these!  They are so yummy and not harder than they look!  I gave some cookie baking pointers in a blog post you can read here with my recipe for Chocolate Chip Cookies.

This recipe for Pistachio Christmas Trees I just adapted from my favorite Gingerbread Cookie recipe from one of my besties Amanda...(and by favorite I mean it is a gingerbread cookie recipe that you actually want to eat and not just decorate).

Anyway, I took the framework of that recipe and changed a few things to accomodate one of my favorite things, pistachio pudding mix.  I thought about doing a little research about the invention of instant pudding mixes but realized I don't really care that much.....I can love them without knowing all their history (I feel the same way about the whole family of canned biscuits). I really just can't wait to blog about these...

OK, so on to the cookies.....

I mixed real butter with my super yummy pudding mix and some sugar, added an egg and some almond extract before I tossed in the flour and baking soda. Mixed all together it is this beautiful dough that looks like ice cream.....what was I talking about? Oh yeah on to the cutting out of the cookies.

Some tips for rolling out cookies:
  • Depending on how sticky your dough is (this one is great and not too sticky), flour the surface of your counter.  Add more flour if your dough is very sticky keeping in mind that adding flour makes your cookie dough tough, so you want to add as little as possible.
  • Sprinkle a little bit of flour over the top of your dough and rub a little bit of flour onto your rolling pin.
  • Use your rolling pin to roll out your dough, starting in the middle and going out to the edges (imagine starting in the middle of a wheel and rolling out along the spokes), spreading the dough evenly. 
  • Every few rolls, turn your dough a quarter turn to make sure it isn't sticking to the counter, adding a little bit of flour if needed.
  • I'm not sure how thin to tell you, it takes a little bit of practice - here's what it should look like.

Dab the edges of your cookie cutter in flour and push straight down...don't wiggle back and forth just straight down folks!
  • Cut out your cookies like a puzzle, keeping the cuts close together, remember everytime you add flour to roll out you are adding toughness to your cookies (ah, that's a sad story).

Put your scraps into another little ball and roll and cut again. At my house I always end up with a little ball of cookie dough and my oldest daughter turns up to make it disappear.
  • Use a flat metal spatula to lift cookie dough and put on cookie sheet.  Add a little bit of flour to your spatula if the cookies are sticking.
  • Don't overbake!  The cookies should barely show some brown around the edges.
After they cooled I found this little shortcut treasure....cookie icing.  Thank you very much Betty Crocker. I love this stuff because it dries hard enough to stack the cookies but it still tastes good (ever nearly broken your tooth on royal icing?) and it's actually bright red, which is really hard to do with homemade icing.

I just cut off the tip shorter than the instructions say.  There are two rings on the tip, I cut at the first one and then just squeeze it quickly into these little zebra stripes.  Do a few at a time adding any toppings you would like and you're done!

These cookies just make me really happy and they taste really good.  I've included all the specifics below.  I think one of the reasons I love recipes with pudding mixes is because they are so versatile.  Imagine these cookies with melted chocolate drizzled over the top sprinkled with chopped salted pistachios. 

And guess what I just discovered......candy cane flavored pudding!

Imagine the possibilites! 

Pistachio Christmas Trees
1 small package pistachio pudding mix
½ cup butter, softened
½ cup white sugar
1 egg
1 ½ cups flour
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon almond extract
Cream together the butter, sugar, and pudding mix; add egg and almond extract and mix well.  Add flour and baking soda and mix just until dough comes together.  Roll out and cut into small Christmas trees.  Bake on ungreased cookie sheets at 350 degrees for 9-10 minutes.