Hampden’s Miracle on 34th Street

34th Street runs through my neighborhood in Baltimore. The people living on one of the blocks of 34th took advantage of the name and go all out with their Christmas spirit. It started decades ago with just one house and has now spread to a whole block of houses that draws people from all over to see the display of lights. Even though I live around the corner from this block and am thus forced to deal with the traffic and parking nightmares this display creates every December I still really appreciate the fact that they do this every year. It brings a lot of joy to many people including me. I usually make it down to the lights at least a few times per year. I went once with my family at Thanksgiving, then again last night with some friends, and I’ll definitely be back on New Year’s Eve for the little celebration that happens there at midnight. (More on that to come at New Year’s.)

The Sweet Treats of Christmas

One of the many things I love about the Christmas season is the excuse to spend a lot of time baking. Every year my gift to family and close friends is an array of yummy homemade treats. I pretty much have my staples, but am also willing to try new things as well. I adopted some orange-cranberry cookies a few years ago that I love, but actually didn’t have time to make this year. Last year I also tried my hand at making homemade chocolate covered cherries, which I really would have liked to do again, but they are super time-consuming as it involves a multi-day process so again I didn’t have time to try them out again this year. This Christmas season for some reason I just felt completely pressed for time, so I wasn’t as expansive in my baking efforts as I’ve often been. I did manage to whip up a few of my staples though.

The most time consuming cookies I make, and the ones I tend to make the most of are your classic cookie cutter sugar cookies. I probably made about 20 dozen of these this year. Since they involve rolling out the dough, cutting out the cookies, and then frosting them once they’re baked I definitely spent a lot of time baking these.

Here’s the recipe, though the librarian in me feels really horrible about posting it since I don’t think it’s old enough to be out of copyright and I don’t know where it came from other than that it’s out of some old cookbook my mother had.

Cookie Cutter Sugar Cookies

4 cups flour
3 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
1 cup butter
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 eggs
2 tsp. vanilla
2 T. milk

Mix together flour, baking powder and salt.
Cream together butter and sugar; add egg and beat until smooth and fluffy.
Stir in vanilla.
Add flour mixture and milk alternately.
Chill cook dough until easy to handle.
Roll out dough 1/4 inch thick on lightly floured board. Cut with cookie cutter.
Bake at 400 degrees for 6 to 10 minutes.

Frosting

I don’t have an official recipe for the frosting, but it’s a combination of powdered sugar, a little bit of milk, and a splash of vanilla mixed together until it’s the proper consistency for frosting a cookie.

Betty Crocker’s Ultimate Spritz Cookies

I also make cookie press cookies every year  as well. I use Betty Crocker’s Ultimate Spritz Cookie Recipe, which you can find online here.

Russian Tea Cakes

I also use good old Betty Crocker’s recipe for Russian Tea Cakes.

The last thing I make every year are chocolate nut caramels, which come from a recipe that has been in my family so long that it actually refers to removing your kettle from the fire. Not only have these been one of my favorite Christmas treats since I was a small child, I also just love the fact that this recipe has been passed down in my family through the years. I learned to make these the old fashioned way without using a candy thermometer and was much more successful doing it that way than I have in the past two years when I’ve tried to be more scientific about it and actually used a candy thermometer I bought to make pralines. Part of my problem I think was that I had the temperature wrong and so the candy was coming out too hard. I’m pretty sure it’s supposed to be cooked to a temperature of 250 degrees, so if you want to make these that’s the temperature I’m telling you to use.

Chocolate Nut Caramels

2 cups sugar

1 1/2 cups white corn syrup

2 cups cream

3 squares bitter chocolate

1 1/2 cups chopped walnuts

1 cup butter (not margarine)

2 teaspoons vanilla

Directions: Put sugar, syrup, butter and one cup cream in a kettle and bring to a boil. When it is boiling briskly, add the other cup of cream a little at a time so mixture keeps boiling. Boil until a thread of the mixture is brittle in cold water. Take from the fire and add chocolate pieces and nuts. Beat until chocolate is all melted. Stir in vanilla. Pour into a shallow, buttered pan to cool (I use a fully sided cookie sheet). After cooling, remove from pan and cut into one-inch squares.

 

Making all these yummy treats every Christmas makes me very happy. Hopefully if you’re lucky enough to know me in person eating some of them has made you happy, and if not I hope you make some of them for yourself to enjoy.

 

Holiday Party at Max’s Taphouse

Every year some of my friends rent out the upstairs bar at Max’s Taphouse in Fell’s Point for our holiday party. It’s hard to believe that this year was our 8th Annual Winter Wonderland celebration. Being held at Max’s, the party of course boasts a wide selection of good beer. There’s also a buffet of food from Max’s and we always bring a wide selection of yummy desserts to munch on as well. The party also always features a white elephant gift exchange. This year I started out with a shot glass checkers game, which got stolen from me. Instead I wound up coming home with an umbrella lamp. I’m thinking that’s going to make a reappearance at next year’s party unless I throw it away like I apparently did with the car bling kit I originally thought I was going to bring back as my gift this year. My husband’s barrel of monkeys also got stolen from him and he wound up with 3 DVDs (some adult content Ren & Stimpy, 2 Brothers, and some sci-fi thing I had never heard of and don’t remember the name of right now).

It’s always a great way to spend the Sunday afternoon before Christmas with friends and to wish everyone happy holidays before we all head off on our travels to visit family in other parts of the country.

We Three Kings by Building 429

I always found the traditional version of We Three Kings a little bit boring for whatever reason. I love this version by Building 429 though. It’s got those dramatic undertones I love in Christmas music. It’s obviously edgier than most Christmas music which for this particular song appeals to me and works really well with this song I think.

The Nutcracker Suite

I love The Nutcracker. I saw it a number of times when I was a kid because we went on a school field trips to see it. Most of the kids seemed to hate having to go, but I loved it. I’ve seen it intermittently over the years since then. The last time was in Boston when I was in college with my friend Erin’s mom, her sister, and her sister’s friend. Erin was obviously supposed to go with us as well, but wound up having to drive back to her school early to beat a big snow storm that was due to roll in resulting in me going with her family but without her. I’m excited that this year I finally got to see The Nutcracker again. My friend Alison and I went to see the Moscow Ballet’s production of it today. It was wonderful to see it again.

Song for a Winter’s Night by Sarah McLachlan

Sarah McLachlan’s Christmas album, Wintersong is my favorite Christmas album. As previously mentioned, I’m partial to the more melancholy sounding Christmas music and much of what is included on this album falls into that category. It also contains a number of songs that I count among my favorites. You’ll see several of them posted in this list in their original form including River and Christmastime is Here and other covers like Wintersong. Therefore, I chose to include Song for a Winter’s Night to represent this particular album.

My KitchenAid Mixer

I am currently in the middle of my annual Christmas cookie baking extravaganza, which is making me super happy about owning my KitchenAid mixer. I can’t even imagine having to go back to using one of those little hand mixers after owning this. Let’s face it. KitchenAid Mixers are not cheap, so for many years after leaving my parents house and my mother’s KitchenAid mixer I made do with one of those cheap hand mixers. I remember nightmare scenarios where the cookie dough would get caught in the beaters and they would stop turning because the motor wasn’t strong enough. Therefore, I was so happy the year my husband (who was my then boyfriend)  bought me a KitchenAid mixer for Christmas and was smart enough to give it to me early so I could use it to bake that year’s cookies. If you do a lot of baking and don’t own one of these I highly suggest you run out and buy one right now. They are worth every penny. Though still pricy you might be able to find a much cheaper than normal one refurbished on Amazon, which incidentally is what mine is.