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. 

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.

“SEND” IN-HOUSE VALENTINES

Who doesn’t like receiving a little compliment now and then? Positive, sincere words are an affirmation of actions and intent, and they give the recipient a boost, sometimes just when least expected. Blush! Face it — validation from others just makes us feel good and creates that internal glow.
Provide the good medicine of encouragement and positive vibes in a large dose with this decorative in-house family valentine box. All ages, even your preschoolers, can put pen to paper and compose simple heartfelt messages of love and appreciation to one another, day to day until Valentine’s Day, adding a hand-drawn emoji for that special touch.

Here’s how to make the box and share kind Valentine’s Day sentiments:

Cut a 3-inch slot down the middle of a shoebox lid. Cover the lid and the box separately with colorful paper, leaving the slot open. Decorate the lid and the box with valentine-themed materials, such as heart-shaped doilies, stickers and hearts cut from construction paper.
For extra writing fun, cut out letters or words from the newspaper to create simple Valentine’s Day sayings, and glue them on the box, too. Place the lid on the box and tape the sides together. Next, tape a small notepad and pencil or pen on a string to the top of the box.

Between now and Valentine’s Day, keep the box on your kitchen table. Encourage all family members, and even friends who stop by, to pull a piece of paper off the notepad and jot down a special Valentine’s note to each member of the family. Keep the comments coming, and encourage one another to be positive! Adults or older siblings might help the younger ones with the writing, or encourage them to draw a picture that expresses their feelings. Notes might include comments such as the following: “Katie, you bake great cookies! Love, Dad” or “Mom, Thanks for picking me up from volleyball practice every day. Jessie.”

On Valentine’s Day, Feb. 14, gather together for a special meal. Open the box and take turns reading the big stack of “love” notes that have accumulated. Enthusiasm will have been building throughout the days preceding Valentine’s Day, so expect your kids to be quite excited!

LIGHT WINTER NIGHTS WITH ICE LANTERNS MADE WITH BUNDT PANS


Ice is nice! Especially when you create a warm welcome to your home with a creative, icy greeting on a dark winter’s night. From popular snowball-size ice candles to large blocks, they all sparkle and glow to line a pathway to your front door.

Easy for me to say, I know, since I live in snow-covered Minnesota, where it’s usually below freezing all winter long. But I proved that I could light the night and create an ice luminary in a moderate climate when I invited friends to our California cabin a few weeks ago. Two days before the party, I rooted through cupboards in search of a Bundt pan. I then filled the mold with water and let it freeze in our freezer. Before friends arrived the next evening, I popped the beautifully shaped “ice lantern” out of the mold, set it on a rimmed tray (to catch melting ice) and placed it on the front porch step with a votive lit in the inside cavity. Once guests arrived, oohing and ahhing with “How did you make that?” queries, I brought it inside for a magical buffet centerpiece. Although it was partially melted by evening’s end, another luminary was prepping in the freezer for another night.

If you have a Bundt pan hiding in your cupboards, bring it out and make ice lanterns with your kids. The price is right with this enjoyable craft — your only cost is water and candles!

Here’s how:
BUNDT PAN ICE LANTERN
Here’s the stuff you need:
— one metal Bundt pan (plastic pans may crack)
— water
— votive or small pillar candle
— citrus slices, floral greens and sticks, etc. (optional)
— food coloring (optional)

1. Fill the pan with water to within an inch of the rim. Wedge in floral objects between the sides of the pan, if you wish. Small objects, such as plastic fish, add whimsy. Or, add a drop of food coloring.
2. Place pan in the freezer or outside if it is below freezing.
3. When frozen, turn upside-down in a sink. Let it thaw a bit, and slowly lift pan. Or, run water over pan to release.
4. Set a candle inside. At sunset, an adult can light the candle.
Note: An adult should always be present when burning candles.

Extra playtime “Happy Brrrrr-thday” idea:
If you live in snow country, make two Bundt pan ice lanterns to create an ice cake. Go outside and stack them on top of one another, with snow spread like icing in-between layers. Top with pretend candles nestled in snow. “A slice of ice, anyone?”

KEEP FAMILY RESOLUTIONS IN 2019

Last month’s holiday celebrations have passed, but perhaps one tradition hangs on. How many of us have put into practice the resolutions we shared with others before the stroke of midnight New Year’s Eve? Hmmm, not as easy to accomplish as hoped?

With the flurry of family life, the days slip by, don’t they? But it’s still January, a fresh time to think about those resolutions, maybe reset them and talk with your kids about the possibilities that 2019 holds. Set realistic goals with action plans you can put in motion. Write them down, or encourage your kids to express them creatively in drawings.

I recently was inspired by my cousin’s 6-year-old grandson Gavin’s artwork hanging on her kitchen wall. He didn’t just say what his resolutions for 2019 were, he drew them. The “selfie” sketch depicted him guarding the goal for his youth hockey team with a background crowd cheering him on. He told me his “goalie goals” were to “be on time, skate well and do my best.”

This positive athletic boy motivated me to look at possibilities big and small for 2019. How about you, especially when it comes to family time?

EAT DINNER TOGETHER
Designate evenings for your family to sit down at the table and share a meal. Get the kids involved with age-appropriate tasks, and get cooking. Did you get a gadget or appliance for a holiday gift? Don’t stash it away for another day. Use it together. For example, if you got a spiralizer, look for recipes using fresh vegetables you can transform into fun pasta-like noodles for a healthy start to the year.

EXERCISE TOGETHER
Get ready to hop, skip and jump! Find common interests and commit time to movement — even spontaneously. Did it snow last night? Or is it raining today? Put on your boots and walk or snowshoe to your local store instead of driving when you need a few groceries.

PLAY TOGETHER                                                                                                     Make play a part of every day. Sounds easy and natural, and it is — especially when kids lead the way in finding playful moments. When you return from work and your child has a fun game for you to try, toss your to-do list aside for a bit, turn off your phone and take the opportunity to find silly or lighthearted ways to connect with your child.

 

 

CREATIVE WAYS TO USE AND DISPLAY HOLIDAY PHOTO CARDS

If you sent holiday photo cards, you probably know from experience that the final image may be stunning, but the production process wasn’t easy.
First comes the search for that photo that tells a story of your year’s highlight. If there wasn’t a wedding, graduation or significant birthday that brought everyone together, the challenge begins, at least for me.

Last fall, when my family was on an outdoor trek, a hiker on our trail took a photo of us poised in front of a breathtaking backdrop. Perfect photo, but … whoops, my eldest son had taken off on a kayak that day. A no-show for the photo.

Combine the group photo challenge with writing that accompanying paragraph that’s funny and informative (not bragging), finding recipients’ current addresses, buying stamps and doing it all in the busiest time of the year! I appreciate how my friends overcame the challenges and their cards arrived in time in my mailbox from all over the world. Tangible gifts of correspondence in an email world. I can’t toss them!

Here are two ways to use and enjoy the cards in the new year:

SNAP A PIC FOR YOUR SMARTPHONE CONTACT LIST
Maybe my circle of contacts and their kids is expanding, or maybe my brain isn’t, but I can always use a little help remembering names and faces. Here’s a trick to help remember, using your smartphone and holiday card photos.
Go to your contact list on your smartphone. Tap the name of the key person in the holiday photo on your contact list and tap “edit.” Tap the photo space and take a smartphone photo of the person/family. Let your school-age child help you out with this fun project. Talk with him about the people in the photos as you go through and photograph them.
Next, go down the contact page to information fields of names of family members. You can even add birthdays. Make the project an exercise in geography, too. Set a country or world map/globe nearby to locate where the individuals live as you type in their addresses.
Click done when complete.

MAKE A “BOOK” OF CARDS
Punch two holes evenly on the left side of each card. “Bind” them together with office style metal clasping rings. Set out on the coffee table and flip them over one by one to enjoy throughout the year.

MAKE POMANDER BALLS FOR HOLIDAY DECOR AND GIFT-GIVING


Inserting whole cloves into a firm apple or citrus fruit to create what is known as a pomander is a lovely traditional craft you might remember doing when you were young. Tis the season to pass this artful fun on to your own kids or grandkids. Easy to make, pomander balls’ rustic beauty and holiday scent make them unique gifts for friends and neighbors that will last long into the new year.
For this version using apples, you’ll need to do some shopping for just two ingredients, whole cloves and apples. I economize by buying cloves in bulk at our neighborhood co-op grocery story. You may also find them in jars in the spice section of most markets. Use any size apple you prefer. This year, I chose cute small snack-size apples rather than larger ones, which makes creating a lovely clove-studded apple easier for kids to complete in one sitting.

Here’s the stuff for one pomander ball covered with cloves:
— Fresh, firm apple
— Whole cloves
— Narrow festive ribbon
— Toothpick or bamboo skewer
— Gift box to fit finished pomander ball and one sheet of tissue paper (for gift-giving)

Here’s the fun:
To cover the entire apple with cloves, use the toothpick or bamboo skewer and poke several evenly spaced small holes making a circular pattern through the apple skin, beginning near the top stem. Insert cloves one by one into these holes, like a “dot to dot” activity. (Leave space between the cloves, as the apple will shrink in size.) Continue making holes around and around the apple and filling them with cloves until you reach the base.
For a gift, decorate the clove-studded apple by criss-crossing colorful ribbon around it vertically once or twice and topping it with a loop to hang in a windowsill or on a wreath. For a nice presentation, set in small gift box with tissue paper. When the recipient lifts the lid, the delicious, spicy scent will permeate the air.
Extra idea using citrus:
Using a similar technique, poke holes into the rind of citrus fruit, such as oranges, lemons and limes. Instead of covering fruit entirely with cloves, use as many as you would like to create swirls, shapes or alphabet letters. If you have visitors coming to your holiday dinner, make a place card by forming the initial of their name, add a bow on top and place the fruit on the center of each plate.

ROSEMARY CASHEWS-GREAT FOR GIFTS AND FOR SNACKING


I’m nuts about nuts. All year round. I try to keep a bowl of fresh, shelled California almonds replenished and within easy reach on the kitchen counter for a grab and go snack. And thanks to my Georgia-raised friend, I have a stash of tasty pecans for tossing on salads and desserts.

For special occasions, our tastes shift to cashews, and this easy recipe that makes them, well, more festive. The addition of fresh rosemary and cayenne pepper is unexpected and always gets raves.

Here’s our family version, which calls for your kids’ assistance. Let them take charge of pulling the fresh rosemary leaves off the stems before you mince the fragrant herb with a sharp knife. Heat up the nuts in the oven and the remaining steps come together in minutes.

Double the recipe for gift-giving. Instead of filling cellophane food bags, use recycled clear-glass jars. Your kids might want to make it whimsical and reminiscent of a snow globe scene by layering the seasoned cashews in the bottom third and adding a cute foil covered chocolate snowman or ornament on top of the cashews. Anchor sprigs of rosemary upright to mimic pine trees, screw on the lid and add a tag. For an extra gift, tie a spoon to the jar for scooping up the flavorful treat.

Let’s get cooking…
ROSEMARY CASHEWS
3 cups roasted, unsalted cashews
1 heaping tablespoon minced fresh rosemary leaves
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 tablespoon salt
1 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Spread the cashews in one layer on a cookie sheet and bake for about 6 minutes, or until warm and lightly toasted.
Combine the rosemary, brown sugar, salt, melted butter and cayenne pepper (if you wish an extra kick) in a large bowl. When the cashews are heated, immediately pour them into the bowl with the spice butter mixture. Toss thoroughly.
Cool and serve. Store in an airtight container up to two weeks.
Note: If you prefer, substitute 1 tablespoon pure maple syrup for 1 tablespoon brown sugar.

MAKE BROWNIE MIX IN A JAR



It’s a handmade and homemade kind of holiday season this year.
If there are still some people on your gift list you wish to remember with a little something, or you need some grab-and-go hostess gifts on hand for parties and get-togethers, create this “from your kitchen” gift idea in an afternoon this week.
Be sure to get your kids involved in making this creative go-to stash of gift jars filled with the dried ingredients for making super chocolaty, chewy and moist brownies. A throwback kitchen craft, this updated version is fun to assemble with even your preschooler. What 4-year-old doesn’t like to scoop and pour? That’s what building the layers of brownie ingredients in a jar is all about as they work to create an artful gift of yummy ingredients.


Here’s how to make a “Brownie Mix in a Jar”:
1. Assembly-line fashion, set out the ingredients, including clean, wide-mouth quart-size jars and lids, on the kitchen counter or a large table. Place a measuring spoon or measuring cup by each ingredient, along with a card stating the name of the ingredient and the correct quantity to scoop into each jar.
2. Layer the following ingredients, in the following order, for one recipe. Pack firmly before adding the next layer. (Use a narrow drinking glass to tamp down ingredients.)
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 Teaspoon baking powder
1/2 cup baking cocoa powder
2/3 cup white granulated sugar
2/3 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup white or dark chocolate chips
1/2 cup coarsely chopped walnuts or pecans
1/2 cup small, unwrapped candy, such as M&M’s (optional)
3. Secure lid, add a gift tag and a card with these baking instructions:

CHOCOLATE BROWNIES
Makes 6 large brownies
Heat oven to 350 F.
Grease or line the bottom of an 8-inch pan with parchment paper.
Pour contents of the jar into a large mixing bowl, and add:
3 eggs
1/2 cup canola oil
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
Stir lightly until blended, then pour into pan and bake for 25 minutes.
Cool in pan, cut into squares and serve.