Santa’s Little Sweatshop…

…or, What I’ve Been Up To Since My Last Post.

Yup, it’s that time of year again…retail season.  The season opener went off with a bang as usual (and some early morning pepper spray, too, I hear tell…’tis the seasoning, I guess).  I’m happy to say that I had bought all my gift-making materials by the time the Friday that Shall Not Be Named rolled around (yes, that’s what it’s known as in our house…you try working retail sometime and see what you call Black Friday)!!

This year, we have decided that we have more free time than common sense, and are thus MAKING all* of our holiday gifts.  We usually do a round of Irish cream and holiday cookies, but now we’ve added toys, clothing, scarves, and various other things to our collective to-do list.  Which has turned our living room into a veritable sweat shop…seriously, everyone but the cat has been manning sewing machines and knitting needles and hot glue guns.  It’s been magical.  But because these are gifts for, you know, people I know in real life, I can’t show you pictures (yet!) of all our labors.

Sad for you, because they’re pretty awesome.  I do have a big big reveal-y type post planned for after the holidays, though, so stay tuned for that.  And I’ll be chronicling my attempts to make proper caramel candies in a few days, so keep your eyes peeled for that, too!

*OK, not all…some people are far too difficult and my skillz are far too inadequate to meet in the middle on a decent gift that they’ll actually, you know, like and/or use…so I will be venturing out on the hunt at least once this retail season.

Homemade Peppermint Marshmallows (sans corn syrup!)

I gave up on marshmallows a couple years ago.  I made the mistake of looking at the ingredients on a marshmallow bag one day in the grocery store and it was amazing what all went into those little puffs–it was scary stuff, folks!  Then I discovered, if you do manage to find ‘mallows that don’t have tons of mysterious goo in them, prepare to lose an arm and leg in the checkout line, because they are not cheap, kids.  Plus, am I the only person who thinks store-bought ‘mallows taste just a teensy bit like fluffy sawdust?  For something with such gooey pillowy promise, I expect them to taste better than cotton balls!  So I just sort of gave up on marshmallows (not that they were an integral part of my life or anything, they were nice in cocoa, good for the occasional s’more and whatnot).

Then, a few months ago, I found myself craving marshmallows.  I wanted to make krispie treats, cocoa, s’mores, and mallow-stuffed caramels with a vengeance, but alas! store-bought marshmallows would not do!  So I put out the call for a homemade marshmallow recipe, and luckily for me (and now you!), the internets delivered and pointed me toward this lovely recipe.  I followed the recipe and made valentine heart marshmallows and they were fabulous!  Flavorful, fluffy, easy, and fun to make, kids!  And I used them for cocoa, and krispie treats, and s’mores…all fabulous.  And that was about as far as I took it.

A few weeks ago, I was cruising around pinterest (yes, that great time suck of the 21st century) and ran across a pin of some Martha Stewart holiday marshmallows…peppermint and red swirl marshmallows, no less!  (Which pretty much guaranteed that I had to try them…what’s better than a marshmallow?  A pretty, peppermint flavored marshmallow, of course!)  But I didn’t really care for Martha’s recipe (yes, I disagree with the almighty M!), so I returned to the recipe I’d used before, but tweaked it a bit.

The main tweak I made was in the flavorings.  The original recipe calls for honey and vanilla, which makes for a delicate, floral, honey/vanilla flavored mallow.  But I wanted peppermint!  The peppermintiest peppermint I could make! So I replaced the honey and vanilla with peppermint extract.  And then doubled the amount of peppermint extract after taste testing the mallow.  I also added some food coloring and a brief swirl session to get the festive red swirls that Martha Stewart’s recipe boasted.  Easy peasy.  In the end, I ended up with what, in my humble opinion, are the perfect peppermint marshmallows!

Homemade Peppermint Marshmallows

Ingredients

  • 1/4 cup cornstarch
  • 1/4 cup powdered sugar
  • 2 tbsp (13g) knox (unflavored) gelatin
  • 1/2 cup lukewarm water
  • 2 cups granulated sugar
  • 3/4 cup water
  • 2 tbsp honey (optional)
  • 1/4 tsp kosher salt
  • 1-1/2 tsp. peppermint extract
  • 8-12 drops red food coloring
  • butter and/or cooking spray, as needed

Method

  1. Prepare your mallow pan.  If you want 1/2″ to 1″ tall mallows, use a rimmed 9×13 cookie sheet.  If you want 1″ – 2″ mallows, use an 8×8 baking pan.  To prepare the pan, spread with a thin layer of butter (or spray with cooking spray, but make sure it’s not olive oil flavored!); be sure to coat the sides, too!  Combine cornstarch and powdered sugar and dump about half of it into greased pan, then tap it around till bottom and sides are well coated.  Tap excess back into the bowl of remaining cornstarch mixture–you’ll use it later.
  2. Bloom gelatin in 1/2 cup water in the bottom of your stand mixer bowl (don’t make these without a stand mixer–your stirring arm will fall off long before the mallow is properly whipped).
  3. Combine sugar, water, honey (if using), and salt in a 2 qt. saucepan.  Bring to a boil and heat, stirring occasionally, to firm ball stage, about 240 degrees F.  Use a candy thermometer unless you’re experienced at testing candy stages.
  4. When your syrup hits firm ball stage, remove from heat, turn on your stand mixer on low (with the wire beater attachment attached) and slowly pour your sugar syrup into the running mixer.  Don’t spill–your syrup is HOT and will burn you!
  5. Once all the syrup is added, beat for a minute to mix well, then crank the speed up to high and let it beat until light and fluffy and mallowy.  This can take anywhere from 8-12 minutes, so be patient!  Add your peppermint extract and whirl everything around for another minute to mix well.
  6. Grease a spatula and coax mallow out of mixing bowl and into your prepared pan.  Spread evenly (or you’ll have unevenly tall mallows, which is not the end of the world, by any means!).  Drop red food color every few inches over the top of the mallow, then using a toothpick or bamboo skewer, swirl the surface of the mallow around to spread the red color into swirls.
  7. Let mallow set up for 3-4 hours before cutting into individual marshmallows.  When you’re ready to cut, butter a sharp knife (or cookie cutter, if you want shapes) and sprinkle a bit of your cornstarch mixture on a cutting board.  Using a sifter or mesh strainer, sprinkle the rest of the cornstarch over the top of the mallow (this will keep it from sticking to your fingers).  Gently pull the mallow out of the pan (don’t worry if you have to tug on it, it will regain its shape once out of the pan).  Cut into desired shapes, being sure to dust the cut edges with more cornstarch mixture so they don’t stick together.
  8. To store, keep in a sealed container (or plastic bag) on the counter for 2-3 weeks (if they survive that long!) or freeze for up to 2-3 months.

The only downside of making your own marshmallows is that you are essentially detonating a sticky, powdered sugar-spewing bomb in your kitchen.  So, you know, have some hot water and good dish soap handy for the cleanup!  Not bad if that’s the worst part of it, eh?!  So whip up a batch and enjoy a celebratory cup of cocoa crowned with your very own peppermint marshmallows!

Weeknight Salted Caramel Sandwich Cookies

via polyvore

I was dashing through my local Whole Paycheck Market the other day to pick up a dozen eggs and some spinach (I hate that they’re the closest market, because I’m always tempted to swing by when I come up short on ingredients, thinking that this time I’ll be able to get out the door for under $10. Which never happens. But I digress). In the checkout lines, they had set out salted caramel samples. I’m a sucker for caramel, have been ever since I worked at a candy store in high school and got hooked on real, honest-to-goodness-cream-and-sugar-and-butter-and-nothing-else caramels. Knowing that if I loved it, I’d buy the whole pound bag next to the sample dish (and knowing that my wallet would scream bloody murder if I did that), I pocketed my sample, checked out and headed home, gold-plated spinach and eggs in hand.

I sort of forgot about the caramel in my coat pocket for a couple days, and then squealed with delight when I found it on my way in to work Monday morning. I had meetings all morning, and I can’t lie: the mere thought of that caramel kept me going through them (OK, that and my usual cup o’ coffee, if we’re giving credit where credit is due). So when I got back from my last meeting for the day, I pulled the (now somewhat careworn and well traveled) caramel out and took a little bite. It was awful, folks. It was totally the wrong texture, rather gritty and waxy, and the only thing you could taste was salt. No cream, no smoky caramelized sugar notes. Just salt and bitter disappointment. The thing practically crackled with salty electricity. I spit it out. Yup, I, who love caramels more than fluffy bunnies and unicorns and rainbows combined, I spit out that caramel. I was so mad! I’d had my taste buds set for caramel, not a salt lick! (And coming as it had from Whole Paycheck, I sort of had pretty high expectations, you know?)

I stewed about it over lunch. All I could think about as I ate my curried carrot soup was: how could they DO this? How DARE they do this?! Just who did that caramel company think they were, anyhow?!?!?!!??!?!?!?!?! HULK SMASH. Oh, I digress again.

As the afternoon wore on, I decided I could do better myself. I know how to make caramel (yes, it’s a bit of a pain, and mildly dangerous, but not too bad if you’re not pressed for time and pay attention to what you’re doing the whole time). So I hunted down my caramel recipe and then I started thinking about how I still had to go to the grocery store to get all this stuff to make it (yes, I’m somehow out of cream and sugar all at once…this happens) and how I was probably going to be pretty low energy by the time I got off work, and I decided I’d make cookies, too! And stuff them with caramel! And that would show the caramel company that shall not be named (and who, I am sure, are blissfully unaware of this whole drama-scape)! Well, actually, I decided that making individual caramels sounded like an awful lot of work, but that cookies were pretty easy, and I could make buttery sandwich cookies and stuff them with a stiff caramel sauce and still be deliriously happy with the caramely results.

So I swung by my co-op on my way home to snag caramel fixings and set to work. Because the cookie dough needs to rest in the fridge for a while, I started on those first.

Butter Cookies

  • 140 g butter
  • 125 g granulated sugar
  • 1 large egg at room temperature
  • 280 g all-purpose flour

Put the butter in the bowl of your food processor and process (scraping down the bowl as needed) until butter is smooth and fluffy.  Fluffy is key, folks.

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Add the sugar and continue to process till thoroughly creamed together.

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Add the egg and continue to process till mixture is satiny smooth (scraping down as needed all the while).

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Add flour all at once and pulse 10-12 times, till dough forms streusel-like clumps.

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Turn dough out onto lightly floured board and gather into a ball.  Divide dough in half and flatten each half into a disc. Wrap each disc in plastic wrap and chill till firm (usually 3-4 hours, but if you’re rushed, you can use it sooner…the firmer the dough is, the less sticky it is to work with, though).

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Line baking sheets with parchment paper and preheat your oven to 350F.

Working with only one disc at a time (leave the other in the fridge to contemplate its fate), roll dough out on lightly floured board till it is about 1/4″ thick. Cut cookies out using a round cutter that is 1-1/2″ in diameter. Place cookies on lined baking sheets, leaving about 1″ between each.

Bake cookies for 8-10 minutes, until they are set but pale, and just golden on the bottom. (Thinner or unevenly thick cookies will take on more color, that’s fine!).

Cool cookies on wire racks. Cookies will keep about a week.

Gather scraps into a new disc and chill before reusing.  Repeat till all dough has been used.  Unused dough can be refrigerated for about a week, or frozen for up to a month.

Once I had my cookie dough chilling, I made dinner. But that’s neither here nor there, really. I had some leftover turkey that needed using, and I was getting hungry, that’s all. But once I’d had my tasty dinner, I was fortified with enough energy to make the caramel sauce!!

Salted Caramel Sauce

  • 120 g sugar
  • 60 g unsalted butter
  • 100 mL cream
  • few drops vanilla extract (optional)
  • 1/4 tsp. salt (only add if using unsalted butter)

Melt sugar over medium heat, stirring constantly.  At first, it will look like nothing is happening, then it will start to get crumbly, and then you will see molten sugar pooling at the edges, like this:

Cook sugar until it turns amber and sugar is completely dissolved, like this:

Meanwhile, heat cream in a small saucepan (or microwave if you’ve got one laying around). Once sugar turns amber, add cream to sugar mixture (watch for sputtering and splattering…this is the dangerous bit). Stir to mix well.

Add butter (and vanilla and salt, if using) to sugar mixture. Stir to mix well, then remove from heat and let cool.  Isn’t caramel pretty!?

Once sauce has set up a bit, use to fill cookies (or over ice cream or whatever you’d like). Keeps well in the fridge for up to a month.

Caramel is pretty easy to make, and these proportions make more of a sauce than a candy that will set up (just adjust the milk to sugar ratio for different consistencies). You just want to be really careful when dealing with hot molten sugar, as it creates very very very bad burns should it touch your poor skin. If disaster is averted, though, you should end up with something that looks a lot like this:

Once I had the caramel sauce cooling, it was time to bake cookies! Yay! I rolled my dough out and cut out my rounds.

If the dough is too hard to work with, put it in the fridge for another 30 minutes and try again. Once they took a pass through the oven, the cookies were set to cool on wire racks. If you top them with caramel when they’re hot, the caramel will just run all over and off the cookie, so you have to wait a bit (I find an open window in cooler seasons does marvelous things for my impatience!)

Once the cookies have cooled, flip one cookie over, dollop a bit of caramel sauce on the center, and top with another cookie. Bottom sides should be facing the caramel for both cookies (it’s prettier), but if you are too lazy to flip cookies before dolloping, very few people will hold it against you once you ply them with a salted caramel sandwich cookie!

If your caramel sauce has set up too much to easily dollop, gently reheat it a little, stirring constantly, till it reaches a more compliant consistency.  You’ll  be able to tell if it’s set up too much because it will look like brains when you stir it:

Once you have the cookies cooled a bit and the sauce the proper consistency, filling the cookies is a snap!

And, if you’re lucky, you’ll have leftover caramel sauce!

OK, to be honest, most people will not consider these a weeknight endeavor (I have a good bit of ambition when it comes to cooking, especially if I tell myself it’s OK to leave the kitchen looking like a bomb went off overnight, which, I have to admit, happens a lot).  But!  You could very easily make the dough one night, the caramel another, and then bake and assemble the cookies on a third night (or perhaps on a rainy/snowy Saturday afternoon).  Please Please Please don’t let the fact that this recipe takes a bit of time dissuade you from making your very own caramel-stuffed blobs of awesome!

Hand Stitching

I went to a great little hand-stitching/reverse applique workshop on Saturday with Gina Sekelsky, put on by the folks over at Sewtropolis.  To be honest, I saw the workshop announced on the Sewtropolis blog and thought the project looked uber-cute, signed up for a spot, and then promptly pushed the workshop to the back of my mind.  So when my calendar reminded me about the event the night before, I dutifully threw my bike stuff together and set my alarm clock accordingly.  I thought about looking up what reverse applique entailed (since I don’t even know how to do un-reverse applique!) but ended up watching a mini-marathon of Vampire Diaries episodes instead (don’t hate folks…anything that makes regular fun of Twilight can’t be all bad!).

So when my alarm went off at the ungodly hour of 7:30am on Saturday, I hopped on my bike and pedaled over to Minneapolis to give this whole hand-stitching thing a try, not really sure what I was in for.  And I have to say:  It. Is. Fabulous.  Gina brought a couple shirts and a couple skirts that she’d done and they were so pretty and intricate and hand-made, but not “home-made” looking (that is to say, very polished and well finished things).  The basic premise is to create a pattern on knit fabric, then hand-stitch around the shapes using very sturdy thread, then cut out the centers of the shapes to reveal the 2nd layer of fabric beneath.  The possibilities are endless…different stitches, different shapes, different layers (and different numbers of layers, if you’re really ambitious!).  And anything (knit) could be appliqued like that…shirts, purses, scarves, you name it!

For the workshop, we made scarves out of layers of white and red knit with little leaves at the end…my only regret is that I didn’t sew far enough from the stenciling, so you can see the pink paint from the stenciling around the red cutouts (I’m not the world’s biggest fan of pink, so I wish it were just the red and white fabric).

I got about 90% done during the 2 hours we sat around and chatted and stitched (it was a cool group of ladies, to boot!) and learned about the technique.  Turns out there are some really high-end clothing lines that use this technique, too (check out Alabama Chanin for instance).

I love the look of this, and have one of their books on request at the library, but while I wait for that to come in, I decided to try my hand at a small project of my own devising.  My sis-in-law has 3.5 kids at the moment, and a while ago I whipped up a dress for my niece, but hadn’t gotten around to doing anything for my nephews, so I decided to make hand-turkey prints (you know, you trace your hand and then make it into a turkey for thanksgiving) on tee-shirts for each of them.

I cheated (a LOT) and hit up Target for little boy shirts in a couple colors, then stitched two shirts together so I had my two layers of knit fabric.  I sewed up the side seams from the bottom to the armpit, across the shoulder seams, and around the neckline and sleeve cuffs to keep the shirts from shifting too much.  I debated sewing around the bottom, but figured if I left it open,  any imperfections I had in lining them up would hang out and not bunch up (especially since I didn’t have any life-size models to try the shirts out on!)

On the larger of the two, I turned the inner shirt inside-out so that the final shirt is (hypothetically) reversible, but on the smaller one, I left both right side out so it’s not. I wanted to see how it would turn out either way, and to be honest, after the first shirt, I decided I wasn’t a fan of the reverse side, anyhow:

One thing that bugged me about the scarf (and, I have to admit, even a tiny bit about Gina’s beautiful creations) was that you could see the knots on one side of the fabric.  I think it looks a bit untidy unless you’ve worked the knots/fringe into the design somehow, and since I didn’t do that, I wanted to hide the knots between my layers of fabric (I also thought it might be more comfy for the kiddos to wear to not have the knots against their skin, and I didn’t want to see the knots on the outside)–sandwiching the knots between the two seemed like the logical answer!  It was a bit of extra work, but I think it really does look better for it:

Once I got the shirts stitched together, I used a sharpie to trace my hubby’s hand for the bigger turkey, and my hand for the smaller one, then stitched around the birds.  I also stitched on legs and an eye to complete my masterpieces!  Cutting out the center of the shape was the most nerve-wracking part of the project…I was deathly afraid I would accidentally cut through both layers, or cut too close to the border stitches, or cut unevenly along the border…aaaaaaah the pressure!

I’m super super happy with how they turned out, though…yeah, they’re simple and home-made looking, but for a 3-year old and a 7-year old, I think they’ll be cute and festive.  Of course, now the real challenge of the project: getting these into the mail before the holiday passes!

And I picked up a couple shirts in my size to try out…I haven’t figured out a pattern yet, but I think I might wait till I get that book from the library (it’s not like I have a dearth of projects to work on in the meantime!)