MAKE EASY CHOCOLATE TRUFFLES

 

  

  “Camera two, action!” There is always extra energy in the air at the Minneapolis/St. Paul KSTP-TV/ABC studio when weekday “Twin Cities Live” begins. The hosts chat about the current day’s events and promote what’s coming up on the show in front of an enthusiastic audience while I scurry around on the sidelines of the set to finalize prep for the recipe and activities from this column I’ll be demoing. There’s no time for distractions until, well, I admit, I spot an array of chocolate truffles on the demo table behind me. “Go ahead and taste one,” says award-winning baker and candy-making instructor Nancy Burgeson, another regular on the show. A quick bite and I was smitten. “And, they’re simple to make,” she adds. 

  Truffles are often made with high-quality baking chocolate and heavy cream, but Nancy’s basic recipe, ideally suited for first timers, uses unsalted butter with the chocolate instead of cream.

  Once the chocolate and melted butter are combined and the mixture is chilled, kids can form the round truffle shapes with a melon baller tool, drop and roll in cocoa powder and arrange the impressive sweets in cute tins or small boxes for gifts.

  Here’s the basic recipe: 

  EASY CHOCOLATE TRUFFLES 

  Makes 25-30 truffles. 

  — 8 ounces good-quality baking chocolate, such as Ghirardelli or Guittard brands (aim for 60% cacao content or more) 

  — 8 ounces unsalted butter, preferably a European-style butter such as Kerrygold brand 

  — cocoa powder for rolling, or other dry toppings such as crushed toasted nuts, cookies or cereal

  Break chocolate in small pieces and melt in a microwave at half power. Or, using a double boiler, heat water to very warm. Remove from the burner and set the chocolate on top only long enough to melt it. 

  Melt butter in a saucepan or microwave until just melted. 

  Add chocolate to butter and gently stir until well combined and glossy. Pour mixture into a baking dish, about 8 inches by 8 inches, or use a loaf pan. Refrigerate 1-3 hours uncovered. 

  With a melon baller, scoop the chocolate in a ball. If chocolate mixture is too hard, let it stand at room temperature for a few minutes. If too soft, return to the refrigerator until firm. Remove it from the melon baller with a tiny spoon, such as a baby spoon, and drop it into a small bowl of cocoa powder or other chosen dry topping. Roll lightly in topping, remove and roll in your hands slightly. Drop back in the bowl until covered. Set on a parchment-lined pan. 

  Chill the truffles until firm. 

  Resource: classesbytoptiermn.com. 

BAKING FUN WITH KIDS

 

 

Jeannie Klint bakes traditional family yeast bread with her granddaughters when they visit.

  “Rules for Little Cooks

  Wash your hands.

  Put on your apron.

  Read your recipe carefully.

  Place everything you need on the kitchen table.

  Have Mother teach you how to heat the oven.

  Measure everything very carefully.

  Wash your baking dishes.

  Sweep the kitchen and leave it in order.”

  So begins the inside cover page of “KITCHEN FUN: A Cook Book for Children” (copyright 1932), a 28-page collection my mom used as a child. From Bran Muffins and Fairy Gingerbread to Cinderella Cake, the baking section caught my eye. Both the “rules” and recipes haven’t changed significantly over the past 88 years and are easy to replicate in any kitchen. 

  The book got me thinking about how baking something delicious is a wonderful way to entice kids to learn cooking basics as they assist and learn from you. The benefits go beyond the mixing bowl. The memories of being shoulder to shoulder, talking, laughing and preparing something amazing out of basic and sometimes exotic ingredients is what it’s really all about. 

  I recall the magic of dough rising in a large bowl in front of my eyes in my grandma Ruth’s kitchen as she intuitively made traditional Swedish cardamom bread. The connection between just the two of us lives on in my memory, and the effort we put into the making was justly rewarded when we opened the oven and took it out.

  Baking with kids this month is a great way to spend time together when weather keeps you indoors. Thumb through family recipe cards and cookbooks. Or go online for a how-to video that captures your and your child’s imagination, then bake it your own way. Here are more ideas:

  Cookies

  Make sugar cookies in heart shapes for Valentine’s Day. Purchasing heart cookie cutters can be the start of a collection of holiday designs you pull from throughout the year.

  If you have preschoolers, make a “Jam Thumbprint” recipe, another ideal “first.” Toddlers can stick their thumbs in the dough balls, then fill the indentation with a bit of jam. 

  Quick breads 

  Baking powder and baking soda don’t require kneading or the time to let dough rise. Let seasons of the year inspire you and the recipes you choose. Start with lemon bread with poppy seeds this spring, and by fall you’ll be a pro at making pumpkin and cranberry breads. 

  Yeast breads

  Watch it rise, punch it down and enjoy the bonus of the taste of aromatic homemade breads. Once your kids get their hands on the “living” dough, they’ll be motivated to bake again and again. 

PLAY, LEARN AND EXPLORE IN THE OUTDOORS

Volunteer angler Don Blasy of Waterdogs Fishing Club teaches and encourages 8-year-old Rusty as he enjoys ice fishing for the first time.

  

 

Whatever it takes to get kids outside and engage with nature, I’m all for it. 

  Sure, gloomy, shorter days can be a challenge this time of year, but it’s worth it to nudge the family out the door for lots of fresh air, new experiences and exercise. 

  That’s what 8-year-old Rusty and his dad, Chris, decided to do recently when they heard about the opportunity to try ice fishing with other families on a frozen metro lake in Minneapolis. Once volunteer angler Don Blasy of Waterdogs Fishing Club helped Rusty sink his line 30 feet down, the boy sat attentively in front of the 10-inch hole in the 18-inch thick ice. Patiently holding his pole with an eye on the bobber, he hoped a little bluegill (sunfish) swimming in the weeds on the lake floor below might take a nibble off the waxworm bait. 

  “It’s good to get kids outdoors, and any kind of fishing, wherever you live, is something kids can enjoy for the rest of their lives,” said Don, a lifelong fisherman who learned fishing as a kid from his dad. “Ice fishing is something kids can do during long winters in cold climates. The sport also teaches them perseverance and patience, especially when the fish aren’t biting.” 

  If sitting on a bucket on a frozen lake in subfreezing temps doesn’t inspire you, there are many other things to do and places to explore outside the four walls of your home. Hibernation isn’t an option. 

  In the wild

  Check in this paper or online for free or reasonably priced events at your local park, regional nature center or arboretum. It’s important for kids to experience the changes of seasons in different venues, and wintertime provides fun new discoveries of plant and wildlife.

  Take a walk 

  Enjoy walking any time of day. Increase your pace to a jog with older kids for an extra challenge. Or take a long hike. Inhale the aromas of the natural world around you and tell stories of your adventure when you get home.

  Share what you love

  Teach your child something that you enjoyed doing as a kid, and rediscover that joy when you are together. Build a snow fort, snowshoe, ice skate, hike or check out a beach and the sea life in tide pools when the tide is low. Take photos of outdoor scenes and people, or build a campfire and toast marshmallows. Yum, s’mores in winter!

EASY ENTERTAINING WITH OVEN-BAKED GRILLED CHEESE SANDWICHES

   

 

  Is there such a thing as easy entertaining? When reviewing our busy December days, I admit that in spite of my intentions, parties became a bit of a production with my long to-do lists and shoutouts to kids to run last-minute trips to the store to pick up mushrooms for the gravy or to our Scandinavian market for lingonberries and herring. By the time I lit ice candles on our porch to welcome guests, I had to ask myself, “Could I have simplified this?”

  In this new year, I want to keep our welcome candles burning for all, but skip a bit of the fancy and go for the easy-prep practical. After all, it’s the get-together that matters, right? Spending time around the table eating, laughing and connecting with family and friends matters most. 

  That’s where making and serving oven-baked grilled cheese sandwiches for a crowd the easy way saves the day. Bake them in the oven all at once instead of the traditional way of grilling in batches on your stovetop in a frying pan. They’ll be evenly browned and done at the same time, ready to be paired with a bowl of piping hot soup, such as fragrant basil tomato. 

  Slice the sandwiches in half diagonally and watch your guests enjoy dipping the pointed ends into the soup. Crispy, gooey and tasty, you’ll be creating fond food memories in 2020.

  Here is my basic oven-baked grilled cheese sandwich recipe. Feel free to embellish with spicy mustard or mayo sauce spread inside, and add additional varieties of cheese. Sometimes I include a pinch of kale or other fresh greens I have on hand. 

  EASY-PREP OVEN-BAKED GRILLED CHEESE SANDWICHES 

  Makes 6 sandwiches.

  — 12 slices white bread a half-inch thick, such as pre-sliced Texas toast 

  — butter, softened for spreading

  — 6 thick slices cheddar cheese

  Preheat oven to 450 F. Set parchment paper on a large baking sheet.

  Ask your child to count and place six slices of bread on the parchment lined sheet. Butter each piece and flip over.

  Lay a slice of cheese on the unbuttered side. Top with another slice of bread. Butter top side.

  Bake in the oven for 5-6 minutes until bread is toasted on exposed side. 

  Flip with a spatula and bake an additional 5 minutes until golden brown and cheese is just melted. 

  Cool for two minutes. Slice in half diagonally and arrange on a platter. Serve with hot bowls of your favorite tomato soup. 

“SEW EASY” FLEECE NECK WARMERS

   

  Feeling a little chilly around the neck this time of year? An odd question, maybe, but not quite so out of the ordinary — especially in Minnesota, where I live, and where we have to be conquerors of bitter winds and snow.

  Even in moderate climates, a little added warmth on a damp, cold day can feel cozy and comfy, and that’s when wearing a simple fleece neck warmer can make a difference. Save money and enjoy making easy-to-sew neck warmers for yourself, family and friends in patterns and lovely colors for a warm-up solution when heading outdoors — whether, skiing, skating or taking your dog for a walk. 

  You might include your teens in the making. If they have never used a sewing machine, it’s a good first sewing project because of the simple straight seams. Once you see how quickly these neck warmers come together, you’ll be inspired to make more for birthday presents and for guests if you host an outdoor winter party.

  Kids of all ages might enjoy helping you choose colors and patterns of fleece online and at your local fabric store. For best results, use the heaviest type of fleece. (Stores such as JoAnn offer coupons regularly for significant discounts on your purchase. My neck warmers came to less than $2 each using the heaviest “Luxe” variety.)

  I homed in on patterns and plaids, but solids are also a good choice and a great look with sweaters and winter jackets. Plus, the straight lines of plaids and checks provide a visual guide when measuring and cutting, a timesaver when cutting out several neck warmers.

 

Here’s what you’ll need for four teen- and adult-size neck warmers:

  — tissue paper or plain large sheet of paper for making pattern

  — straight pins 

  — 2/3 yard of 56- to 60-inch-wide heavyweight fleece fabric

  — good sewing scissors

  Here’s the fun:

  1. Make a pattern. Measure and cut the paper 10 1/2 inches x 21 inches.

  2. Pin pattern to single layer of fabric making sure the short side of the pattern is placed parallel to, but not on, the selvage. This way, fabric should stretch along its longer side. Setting the pattern this direction ensures that the neck warmers give correctly. Cut the fabric. 

  3. Fold the rectangle in half width-wise with right sides facing. Pin and stitch, allowing for a 1/2-inch seam. 

  4. Hem both open sides. First fold over edges 1/2 inch and insert pins to hold place. Stitch with sewing machine. Remove pins.

  5. Turn neck warmer right side out. It is ready to wear. 

CRUISE INTO 2020 WITH BEVERAGE AND SNACK GLASSES ON WHEELS

 

  A stroll turned into a jog on the wide, pedestrian-packed Champs Elysees in Paris as my high school French language students and I realized we needed to hustle and descend into the closest metro station to get to our next destination on time. Then, something with contemporary appeal caught my eye in the bright window display of a chichi shop along the avenue. An array of expensive crystal champagne glasses were anchored by classic Matchbox cars!

  The combo of crystal and colorful toy cars, like those I recalled from my brother’s childhood collection, was whimsical and magical. Having no time to snap a photo, I quickly herded my students down the metro steps and onto the train. 

  Thankfully, 10 years later, when hosting a family-style New Year’s party for neighbors, that window display image somehow resurfaced in my brain, and I went to work to create an inexpensive, kid-friendly version of what I now refer to as “glassware on wheels.” 

  I purchased reusable plastic tumblers and champagne glasses with detachable bases at a discount store and attached the stem, minus the base, to the tops of die-cast toy cars and other small toy vehicles with big globs of glue.

  Filled with bubbly beverages (we combine sparkling water with juice) and/or with popcorn, candy and nuts, we give them a gentle shove and watch them cruise down the table to entertain guests.  Festive conversation starters, they can be a New Year’s Eve memory for your family, too. 

  When the wheels stop in front of you, raise your glass for a toast to 2020!

  PARTY BEVERAGE AND SNACK GLASSES ON WHEELS

  Here’s the stuff you need:

  — clear plastic reusable cups with detachable bases such as champagne coupes with stems and/or small juice style tumblers (available at some discount stores and party supply stores)

  — die-cast toy car or small vehicle for each glass

  — glue gun

  Here’s the fun:

  1. Wash and dry plastic glassware. (You won’t need the detachable bases.)

  2. An adult should apply a big blob of glue to the top of a vehicle, set glassware stem in glue and hold until completely set. Add more glue around the sides of the stem. Let set, and repeat. 

  3. Place on a serving tray, always lifting from the vehicle. When ready to use, fill half-full with juice, sparkling water, cider and/or snack foods. Handle with care as you let them roll on a smooth table or counter.

  Notes: Glue may damage the paint on cars if you try to remove them from the plastic cups. Hand wash. 

FALL FAMILY LIVING A-Z

  It’s officially fall. Kids storm through the front door after school and toss their backpacks in the hallway; you’re just home from work, and there’s dinner to be made and maybe soccer practice or piano lessons to get to after the last bite. 

  Sounds like a busy routine. How do you choose which extra family fun stuff to fit in on your calendar along with a few must-dos? 

  I’ve discovered with my kids and friends that the basic ABC’s can provide a simple, creative framework for visually highlighting the essentials: family outings, household repairs, discoveries and activities.

  This year, my list includes not only must-do chores, but also fall excursions, new foods to try, service opportunities and family adventures. The only caveat is that you need to find an open alphabet letter to describe the event. That helps keep all the ideas and inspiration under control.

  Here’s how it works:

  I listed all 26 alphabet letters on a medium-size white board hanging in our kitchen. Engage your child to make the A-Z list. Events and activities are described by their corresponding letter. Friends who drop by add ideas they would like to do with us, too. For example, our 8-year-old neighbor was eager for me to teach him how to make applesauce with the new crop of Honeycrisp apples that had arrived at our farmer’s market last weekend. I brought out our peeler gadget for him to crank out slices for the kid friendly recipe. Check off “A.” 

  The “B” is noted with “build a berm around our foundation,” to prevent a wet basement during the continuing rainy season. “C” reminds us to gather clothes to take to Goodwill, and “D” to deliver “Meals on Wheels.” Scanning down the alphabet to “M,” I’ve already released the monarch butterfly my 16-month-old granddaughter and I observed pop out of its chrysalis. 

  Soon, I’ll be shifting attention to “Z,” a reminder to compose a colorful zinnia bouquet from our garden before the snow falls.

  No need to end a first round of A-Z activities when seasons change. Check off what has been accomplished and enjoyed, then erase or simply add a new event. Spelling out in detail from A-Z what has been done, and what is left to do, will continue to serve as a visual reminder to family of your active, giving and community-involved lifestyle.

  By the way, good luck finding ideas for  Q’s and U’s!

MAKE A “STAINED GLASS WINDOW’ WITH CRAYON BITS

 

  When life feels overscheduled, I try to remind myself to stop and take a breath. When I do, it’s the trips I’ve taken and recollections of places I’ve been to that often come to mind. The pause gives me another perspective.

  One such memory was a trip to Gothic Chartres cathedral. Situated on the outskirts of Paris, the stony cathedral, perhaps one of the most beautiful in France, is celebrated for its stained glass windows. When the sun streams through, colors seem suspended, glistening in the air. 

  You can create a striking “stained glass window” for your home, but you don’t need fancy bits of glass. Instead, devise a stunning look with a little creativity and simple supplies, like crayon bits. 

  Here’s the stuff you need:

  — crayons in assorted colors, peeled and sorted

  — cheese grater

  — newspaper 

  — waxed paper

  — old cloth napkin or hanky

  — iron

  — large dinner-size round plate for pattern

  — scissors

  — black construction paper

  — glue

  — ribbon or fishing line

  Here’s the fun:

  Use the grater to make crayon shavings from the peeled crayons. Sort them into piles by color and shade.

  Lay a large sheet of waxed paper, waxed side up, on a small stack of newspaper on an ironing board. Sprinkle the shavings evenly over the waxed paper, mixing or separating colors. The colors will seem to fall into their own delicate pattern. 

  Set a second sheet of waxed paper, waxed side down, on top. Cover with the lightweight cloth. With an iron set at warm, an adult should press very slowly along the cloth, stopping and starting. The crayon bits will melt almost instantly. Remove the cloth to see the beautiful “stained glass.” Let the crayons harden.

  Use the plate as a pattern and cut out a round shape from your “stained glass” sheet. To create an outer frame, (the “lead” of the “stained-glass window”) use the plate as a pattern again, and cut a 3/4-inch wide ring out of black construction paper. Set on the round shape crayon design and glue in place. 

  Cut two narrower (about 1/4 inch) rings of black paper (one larger in diameter than the other) and evenly place on the inside of the “window.” Arrange strips of black paper coming from the circles like spokes on a wheel. Glue and let dry

  Punch a hole at the top of the stained glass window, and string ribbon or fishing line though the “lead” frame. Then hang in front of a window and watch the sun stream through to brighten your home. 

RECYCLE AND SHAPE UP USED CRAYON

  When it comes to the annual back-to-school supply list for young students, crayons are still at the top. It’s no secret that kids love new boxes full of colorful crayons with sharp points, but what about last year’s stash? There’s no reason to throw out those worn-down stubs from school and a summer of coloring and art projects. 

  Instead of tossing them in the trash, collect them in a box and get going with this repurposing activity that turns old crayons into new shapes. You and your kids can make creative “designer” crayons — perfect for fall art activities or favors at your child’s next birthday party. 

  There are numerous techniques I’ve used over the years, including melting crayons in jars and pouring the liquid into plastic molds. But this year, I’ve landed on a simple, messless approach: melt crayon pieces in a silicone mold in the oven. There are different sizes and shapes of molds available to inspire you, such as fall leaves, animals and silly characters. Or, go basic like I did with a standard silicone ice-cube tray, which formed easy-to-handle chunky crayon squares.

  Here’s the stuff you need:

  — crayon stubs in your favorite colors

  — silicone muffin, candy or ice mold available at craft and discount stores and online in seasonal and geometric shapes 

  — baking sheet

  Here’s the fun:

  Remove the paper wrapper from crayons. Let kids break them into pieces and sort into stacks according to colors.

  Heat oven to 275 F. Pile the pieces according to color in the sections of the silicon mold. Toss in a piece in a contrasting color for a marbleized effect, if you wish. Place mold on a baking pan for easy handling. An adult should set it in the preheated oven for 20 minutes, or until crayons are completely melted. Check occasionally. 

  Remove and cool melted crayons until completely solid, about an hour. To hasten the process, put the tray in the freezer for 10 minutes. Pop newly shaped crayons out of the mold. 

  Try out a new crayon on a piece of paper and you’ll discover that it really works. If you still have extra crayons in the sorted piles, make another batch and enjoy sharing the remade crayons with family and friends.

  Note: Once you melt crayons in the silicone mold, plan on using it for nonedible crafts only.

PERSONAL PITA PIZZAS

I took an informal poll in my neighborhood with the question, “What do kids like to eat most?” I noted responses from both adults and kids, like mac and cheese, burgers, tacos and chicken fingers. But, to no surprise, pizza dominated. Maybe it’s because it offers something for all tastes.

  If pizza reigns in your house, throw an informal Halloween pizza party, or another get-together with family and friends this school year. Planning and hosting can be creative and easy to cater for all tastes when you keep it simple. 

  Instead of preparing and shaping pizza dough in advance, here’s the shortcut: Make personal pizzas together using pita bread available at a bakery or grocery store. Provide the toppings so guests can enjoy putting their pita pizzas together assembly-line fashion, letting everyone choose their favorites as they go for unique combos. It’s an ideal set-up for picky pizza eaters who prefer their favorite toppings.

  FAMILY-STYLE PERSONAL PITA PIZZAS 

  TOMATO SAUCE

  The pizza-making begins with a good tomato sauce. Purchase your favorite sauce, or make this homemade recipe that goes together in minutes. Enlist your school-age child to measure and stir the chunky sauce.

  For 2 1/2 cups, mix together in a bowl: a 14-ounce can diced tomatoes and a 6-ounce can tomato paste, 1 teaspoon dried oregano, 1 teaspoon garlic powder, 1 teaspoon sugar, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil. (For a smooth sauce, whirl in a blender). 

  TOPPINGS

  Classic kid-pleasing toppings include bowls of shredded mozzarella cheese, sliced pepperoni, red onion thinly sliced into rings, sliced mushrooms, chopped bell pepper and pitted olives. For variety, and to accommodate adult tastes, you might include marinated artichoke hearts and drained oil-packed sun-dried tomato slices. 

  For a seasonal option, skip the tomato sauce and layer your pita pizza with Italian shredded cheeses, sauteed onion and slices of an apple or pear. Sprinkle with crumbled gorgonzola and fresh thyme.

  SET-UP 

  At one end of a counter or table, stack pita bread and small plates. Continue assembly-line fashion with the bowls of sauce, toppings and ending with baking sheets. 

  ASSEMBLE

  Invite guests to place a pita bread on a plate. Spread with sauce, if using, then add toppings according to taste. When complete, remove from plate and set on baking sheet. 

  BAKE

  Bake in a 400 F preheated oven for 10-15 minutes or until cheese is bubbly and pita is crisp.