Alaska: Earl Grey Cookies (two delicious versions)

earlgreycookiestackIn The Yule Log 365’s year-long quest to make one popular cookie from each of the 50 states, I drew ALASKA from the jar of the 50 possibilities.  Hallelujah!  I was excited to make Earl Grey Tea Cookies, first suggested by my dear friend, Lauren Vint.  I found a recipe on “Alaska from Scratch,” and the same recipe was published on Alaska Dispatch News.  I served the cookies with tea to my mother, my dad, and my sister.  The vote was three thumbs up.

One stumbling block was the scraped vanilla bean.  I admit that I thought a vanilla bean was like a coffee bean, and I would need to use a grater, like a coffee grinder.  After research and a YouTube video, I figured out that a coffee bean is an elongated, thin pod that must be cut and scraped. The flavor beats vanilla extract. Mel’s Kitchen Cafe posted a YouTube video with simple instructions for scraping the pod. Amazing!  (Obviously, my experience level is basic.)vanillabean

We rolled the cookies in tablespoon-sized balls dipped in Turbinado sugar.  The resulting butter cookie with a light tea flavor was amazing.  We used the same dough, refrigerated and rolled with flour to 1/4 inch think, for a lemon frosted cookie.  Both had delicious flavor, and the taste of each was distinct.  I tested them on Jeremy, Roger, Lauren, and a few random students–all agreed that eating just one or two is impossible.

We are sure to add them to our Christmas cookie plan next year.lemonfrosted

The 50-state Christmas Cookie Challenge: Chicago Public Schools Butter Cookie Recipe

butter-cookie-finalAfter five years of Merry Christmas partnership, Jeremy and I decided we needed something to inspire us to revitalize The Yule Log 365.  Jeremy saw a list of 50 Christmas cookies unique to the 50 states and sent it to me through Facebook. It was an interesting list, and it gave us the idea that we should launch a challenge for ourselves–50 weeks of cookies, state by state.

Here’s our plan.  Every two weeks, Jeremy and I will draw two states from a reindeer-decorated jar.  Each of us will research and bake a Christmas cookie, connected to that state, in the 14-day window.  Then, individually, we will post our results and the recipes, offering a review of the cookies and their potential for being added to your favorites for Christmas 2017.

I pulled Illinois.  To be honest, I was thinking of a state a little more exotic–Alaska, Hawaii, Alabama.  A search of Illinois cookies revealed multiple hits for “Chicago Public Schools Butter Cookie Recipe.”  That intrigued me because I am a public school teacher, and I love the cookies our cafeteria employees bake.  Many people referenced the nostalgia of the smell and taste of these cookies.  I found a video on YouTube that illustrates the very simple steps.

To celebrate Illinois and my cookie choice, I invited my dear friend Lauren Vint to bake our recipe.  The ingredients are simple–deceptively simple for a Christmas cookie.

Chicago Public Schools Butter Cookie ingredients.

Chicago Public Schools Butter Cookie ingredients.

We used the KitchenAid mixer, which is an excellent mixer, but I don’t know if we got “cream sugar and butter until light and fluffy” to the degree that it should have been creamed. I remember my grandmother describing the creaming process as key to success, and often she used her hands to incorporate and melt the sugar and butter. I think the batter was a little sticky, and pressing the cookies down with a glass dipped in sugar was challenging.

The baking time was exact, and the cookies were a beautiful golden brown around the edges.  Plain, but pretty.  The taste was satisfying, but not spectacular.  These are good butter cookies, but I wonder if I should have used salted butter, rather than  unsalted.  The taste was a not quite as rich as I had expected, and the aftertaste was not memorable.

I think the cookie would be more excellent if it was frosted–more like a sugar cookie.  Maybe I just like more sweet than the simple cookie delivers. Maybe I need to be the student product of Chicago Public Schools?  I am saving some butter cookies for Jeremy to taste and pronounce his judgement.

I’m looking forward to 49 more weeks of cookie adventure.  Does anyone have any experience with this recipe?  Tell us what you think.

Podcast #68- Happy 5th Birthday!

bday-cakePodcast #68- Happy 5th Birthday!

Celebrating our 5th Birthday!

Natalie and I are back!  We met for our annual Christmas Eve podcast and discussed many important issues. Listen to hear about our 2106 entries and results from the Festival of Trees (spoiler- we’re now multiple award winning tree designers). We also discuss our recent Christmas adventures and what the future holds for our site. We have challenged ourselves to be more engaged in sharing our Christmas joy in 2017.  Listen to the whole podcast to hear our plans for next year- it’s going to be good!

Podcast #67- 316 Days to Go!

candy cane hearts

Podcast #67- 316 Days to Go!

Click here to listen to our latest podcast- Catching up for 2015!

We try to get back on track this week and collect our thoughts for 2015 podcasting.  Natalie and Jeremy discuss thoughts about holiday bargains, the 2014 Christmas wrap up, and lots and lots of craft ideas!
Snowmen, winter and snow days off from school also feature prominently in our chat leading up to Valentine’s Day 2015.  Listen in for all the details.

Christmas trees and fire safety

mc-btbonfire-1-013114-nn-tifA North Jersey site published a story today about an annual Boonton Township celebration involving a bonfire of burning Christmas trees, complete with a chili cook-off.  That’s a great way to safely enjoy a tree on fire, under the supervision of the local fire department.  Unfortunately, Christmas trees can be the fuel of much greater disaster.

Closer to home, we read about the recent devastating fire that destroyed a beautiful Annapolis mansion, and, more important, the lives of a loving family, was made more sad when fire investigators determined that the catastrophic blaze was caused by an electrical problem that ignited the 15-ft. Christmas tree skirt and tree.

The key is hydration.  A dry Christmas tree can ignite and burn much more quickly than a well-watered tree.  When a tree begins to lose its needles, that’s when it’s time to take it down.  The National Fire Protection Association demonstrated the very real danger with a video contrasting a fire started with a dry tree vs. one that is hydrated.

PBS News Hour produced a segment about Christmas tree fires that explores a much more scientific explanation about why a tree fire can happen so quickly and be so dangerous.  The video illustrates that tree can ignite and spread in 18 seconds.  Although only a tiny percentage of trees (about 250 of the 30 million sold anually) are involved in fires each year, the cost of the property damage is in the millions of dollars.

All of the safety tips emphasize that trees do not spontaneously combust.  There must be a heat source.  In addition to keeping the tree watered, it should not be set up near a heat source–like a fireplace or heating vent.

When Roger and I light our Christmas tree on fire in the fire pit sometime this summer, the same enthusiasm that I have for the 20-foot blaze will be tempered with my memory of how this same uncontrolled fire can wreck lives.

No snow? Make your own!

2014-12-10 16.59.31This story begins nearly a year ago when Roger proposed to paint our living room a deep red–the kind that some might associate with brothels or blood.  At first, I was firmly against it, but then, I began to think that a red and white theme could be a tremendous advantage in my Christmasy world.  I agreed, maybe a little too enthusiastically, because he tried to change the plan.

The painter didn’t help because he shook his head when he saw the color.  “I don’t like to paint with red,” he said.  “It’s very difficult.”

2014-12-02 22.27.50

The four-sided snowflake to the far right was contributed by my son, C.J. True to his nature, he said snowflakes did NOT have to conform to the hexagonal shape.

Now, with a long stretch of red wall above a white wainscot, I have a perfect empty palette.  Too empty.  Roger doesn’t want to mess the wall up with pictures.  I had to wait until he went on his annual hunting trip to put my secret plan into effect.  I had seen some popsicle stick snowflakes on Pinterest and envisioned a wall of giant falling snow for the entire winter season.  With red and white tree and house decorations, I would have “House Beautiful.”  Photographers line up at the door.

Popsicle stick snowflakes, purportedly easy enough for a child to make, are little devils.  They are a little more delicate than I expected, and I found myself making some routine repairs throughout. The symmetry was difficult, too.  Cutting and matching them was just a little more exactness than I usually have.  (I could have benefitted from a pencil and a sharp knife to measure and cut more carefully–I am sloppy in that area.)   I spray painted the first two but that was messy.  The last five or six were painted with craft paint and a brush.  Much better. My friend Lauren suggested that I add whimsical large and medium white buttons as the center and linking joints of some.

I wish I had read Amy Bellgardt’s blog before I started.  Her tutorial is excellent, and she had some of the same experiences with cutting the little buggers that I did.  I love that she wrote, “And the whole angle thing was irritating me and turning a project with elementary school level crafting materials into a college level course in bad attitude.” Her step by step directions would have saved me a lot of cussing and experimenting.

If you are thinking about trying these, hanging red, blue or green snowflakes against a white wall would work just as well.  Choose the color to match your house decorations.  Even when Christmas is over, the snowflakes can “hang around” through January and February.

Snowflake Bentley would have loved January 21, 2015

1999_Snowflake_BentleyAlthough he isn’t strictly Christmas, I bet Wilson A. Bentley (1865-1931), the first man to ever photograph a snowflake, would have loved the wet snowfall yesterday. The snowflakes were huge, ideal conditions for studying the hexagonal ice crystals.

I stumbled across a short documentary about him when I was looking for more paper snowflake crafts.  His obsession with capturing the snowflakes on his Vermont farm required a unique rig of a microscope attached to one of the first cameras.  This type of photography is called “photomicrography.” In his lifetime, he took photos of over 5,000 snowflakes, one at a time–in a place where there snowfall averages 120 inches a year, I guess he really loved snow.  As the flakes fell from the sky, he caught them on a black velvet-covered tray.  Then, he pushed them into position with a chicken feather so he could photograph each one.

(I’ve got plenty of chicken feathers but none of the obsessive patience it must have taken to do this!)

The Jericho Historical Society was established in 1972 to preserve Bentley’s life and legacy, and this year they celebrated the 150th anniversary of Wilson Bentley’s birthday.  In conjunction with the historical society, there are authorized snowflake gifts for purchase.

One way to learn more about this remarkable man is to read about him.In 1998, Jacqueline Briggs Martin and illustrator Mary Azarian published Snowflake Bentley, based on the true story of his life.  Azarian won the 1999 Caldecott Medal for her illustrations.

I would like to buy a copy of this book for my grandson.  We love “spiriments,” and I can imagine he and I would be out in the cold trying to gather snowflakes to photograph. The photos would make beautiful Christmas cards or winter thank you notes.  Watch out. . .I’m cooking up a great idea. . . and from the weather report, it looks like we might have our photo opportunity this weekend.  Fingers crossed!

bentley-snowflakes