Homemade Vanilla Extract (& gifts)

I’m way behind.

Homemade Vanilla Extract

I usually have Christmas presents bought and buttoned up by now. Or, at least started. I begin shopping – little by little, piece by piece – in the summertime. I’m normally working my way down a list that was made in the spring.

I’d like to think I do it this way because I’m so thoughtful and giving and generous. That my gift giving was borne within me, it’s a part of me, it cannot be denied for 12 months out of the year and so, I must shop early and shop often. How else can I uphold the claim that I am like Leslie Knope when it comes to presents?

Homemade Vanilla Extract

Sure, it’d be nice if that were the case. In all actuality, I start shopping that early because I don’t like seeing my bank account take such a wallop the last six weeks before Christmas. If I spend the money slowly over a longer period of time, it doesn’t hurt so badly.

But, this year has been a crazy one for me (Umm…October is next week? What?!). I’ve had a lot going on that hasn’t involved shopping. Which is kind of crazy. Because I love shopping! And all things Christmas related!

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Brandy Slush

Working on a Christmas gift has led me to looking at old family photo albums, mainly from my grandma’s house. It’s the craziest thing – when I look at these photos I remember the moment with all of my senses. The way the dining room chairs felt, the smell of her garage, the taste of freshly made pancakes. I remember it all so vividly.

Brandy Slush via Midwest Nice Blog

For instance, I have a very clear memory of childhood Christmases. Of walking down the stairs, into the basement, around the corner past the tv room and into the pantry. My grandma’s basement pantry was huge! Hidden behind a pink and white curtain, it housed jars and jars of canned vegetables (grown the previous summer), boxes of honey wafers for my aunt, and enough boxes of pasta to feed a small Italian army.

Brandy Slush via Midwest Nice Blog

There was also a large deep freezer on one end of the room. One of those white ones with the door that opened up like a chest, with a chasm great enough that you’d have to dive in looking for things. Free floating, balancing on your stomach, feet up in the air.

Brandy Slush via Midwest Nice Blog

Something that was always easy to find this time of year? A bucket of brandy slush. We had it at every family gathering around the holidays (or, quite possibly, any time of year). I remember my dad wanting another glass and me begging to got and get it. I remember the cool concrete floor under my socks, the scraping of the spoon shaving off bits of slush into his cup, struggling to fill the remaining space with soda. A big bottle always on the low shelf near the entrance of the pantry. Then making my way back upstairs, only after stealing a few sips.

Brandy Slush via Midwest Nice Blog

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Peppermint Pinwheel Meltaways

I suck at spritz cookies. Royally. I’ve tried numerous recipes – old ones, new ones. I’ve tried numerous cookie presses – old ones, new ones. For whatever reason, they’ve just never worked out. The dough is too gooey or to too tough or spreads to much or has no flavor. Maybe some day, I’ll know what I’m doing wrong and get my act together.

Peppermint Pinwheel Meltaways

Until then, there are these lovelies! A cookie so buttery and soft and melt-in-your-mouth that they beat spritz butt. Plus, they’re just as adorable what with their perfect little pinwheels!

Peppermint Pinwheel Meltaways

This dough is slightly adapted from one in my great grandmother’s recipe notebook, it’s easy to whip up and even easier to work with (something I haven’t encountered with other spritz recipes). A dash of peppermint extract keeps the Christmas-y and matches their beautiful peppermint swirl.

Peppermint Pinwheel Meltaways

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Vanillekipferl

He raised his left hand, pointed his index finger upward. Eyes closed in thought. He chewed, waited a beat. They opened up, big and brown.

I had seen that look before, watched that procession from tastebuds to fingertips. It felt so good to witness again.

“Holy shit this is good! You were right.”

It was the first bite of our dinner. We had met at Mindy’s Hot Chocolate at my urging (always at my urging). We were sharing a bunch of small plates, this one being a roasted squash salad.

I sat across from Sam, seconding his expletives. I tried to appear humble at the dinner’s success but had known no matter what we had ordered that it would be phenomenal. And, better yet, knowing he would undoubtedly enjoy it, even after all this time apart.

I had anticipated a lot about my return to Wisconsin. Being more available for family functions, relishing the changing seasons, driving on winding farm roads. But I didn’t anticipate this, never could have in my wildest dreams. I was getting a second chance at friendship, one that had been very near and dear to my heart for some of my most formative years.

Sam and I met the first day of freshman orientation. We quickly clicked. I found refuge in his presence. A reprieve from the chaos of my new environment, new responsibilities. He was always upbeat, outgoing, a drawstring bag permanently attached to his broad shoulders.

One of the things we bonded over most was food. We loved eating it, loved talking about it. We shared countless meals at the dining halls in those first few months of school, ate at different restaurants in town, shared snacks in dorm rooms. There was one instance of him clambering into the trunk of my family’s SUV, already packed full, coming along to get frozen custard.

I got used to seeing his long, slender hands move as he ate. An extension of the meal, almost. Delicate, precise, punctuating his points – whether they be about the meal, a class, the news. One weekend, he went home and returned with dumplings made by his grandfather, an entire container full, a gift for me.

Before winter break freshman year, he shared these cookies with me, made by his mom. I was completely enamored. Crisp, sugary, sweet. He returned the next quarter with the recipe written in his mother’s hand, another gift for me.

After those first few months, we began to drift, our interests and issues taking us in different directions. His to South Africa, China, Spain and more. A gifted videographer and storyteller, his kind heart a driving force in what he created, the stories he told. Mine saw me sequestered to kitchens – at school, at home, in the South. I dove deeper into baking, telling my stories that way. We saw one another from time to time, walking across campus, but there weren’t any more meals, any more outings. In fact, we went nearly three years without speaking directly to one another, until a fateful message from him right before I moved back to Wisconsin.

That message led to texts that led to brunch. Brunch led to a walk to get cookies. That led to a conversation in a nearby park, sitting under the warm September sun.

“You’re very different than when we met. You’re calmer, more sure of yourself,” he told me while we ate. I nodded.

Before, I would have balked at the suggestion; adamant it was untrue. Not anymore. I knew he was right. I wasn’t the scared and sick teenager he had met all those years ago. He was different too, not entirely the seemingly carefree, boisterous ball of motion I remembered. He’d seen and experienced so much, collected memories and stories from across the globe. He had only ever supported me in those early stages of our friendship, encouraging my love of food, my written voice. After a lot of work, I had learned to support myself, a quiet confidence that wasn’t there at 18. He had it too. It permeates our time together now. We share more than food at meals. Hopes, goals, fears, flaws. I’m in awe at how much he seems to understand me (and himself) after all this time. It has moved me (and sometimes him) to tears every time we’ve been together. He claims my emotions are just as strong now as they were freshman year, he’s not scared of my tears.

And I’m thankful for that. For his mom’s wish of “Good luck!” on her handwritten recipe for these vanillekipferl. For his invitation to spend Christmas day with his family. For the chance to learn how to make those beloved dumplings of lore. For his his friendship, then and now.

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Cranberry, White Chocolate, & Orange Drop Cookies

Here they are! The cookies that were so good they inspired a cake!

Cranberry, White Chocolate & Orange Drop Cookies

I should have known I had something special with these fellas when I took them into work with some other desserts leftover from Thanksgiving and they were the first things finished and the only things talked about.

Cranberry, White Chocolate & Orange Drop Cookies

Make them for yourself and you’ll have the same results, I’m sure! A bit less time intensive than the cake (and easier to give too!) these cranberry white chocolate and orange cookies are like the Christmas version of the classic chocolate chip.

Cranberry, White Chocolate & Orange Drop Cookies

Cranberry White Chocolate Orange Drop Cookies

2 cups flour

½ tsp. salt

½ tsp. baking soda

½ tsp. baking powder

½ cup granulated sugar

½ cup brown sugar, lightly packed

the zest of one orange

12 TBSP (1 ½ sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature

1 egg

1 tsp. vanilla extract

½ cup dried cranberries, chopped

½ cup white chocolate chips

Whisk together the flour, salt, soda, and powder. Set aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream together the sugars, butter, and zest until light and fluffy, about five minutes. Scrap down the bowl before stirring in the eggs and vanilla until combined.

In three batches, add the dry ingredients to the wet, followed by the cranberries and chips.

Wrap dough in plastic and refrigerate overnight.

When ready to bake preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line baking sheets with parchment.

Using a medium cookie scoop (2 oz.), scoop out dough and roll into balls. Place on prepared baking sheets and bake in preheated oven for 14 – 17 minutes, until lightly golden brown on the edges. Remove to rack to cool.

Cookies can be stored for up to five days in air tight container.

*You can prescoop this dough and freeze the balls until ready to bake – just add an additional minute or two to bake time.

Grandma Green’s Cutout Cookies

It’s here! It’s here! Cookie Week has begun!

Classic Cutout Cookies

And I can’t think of a better way to start it off than with a tried and true classic – the cutout cookie. There isn’t a more quintessentially Christmas-y cookie out there, in my opinion.

Classic Cutout Cookies

And these cutouts? Oh, they’re something special. First of all, they’re a recipe that’s been passed down through the family. Tried and true and trusted. And for good reason! The recipe is simple and essentially fool-proof. Second, it’s gonna make a lot of dough. And I mean a. lot. Dozens of dozens of cookies. Depending on the size of your cutters you could be looking at 150 – 200 cookies. Now that’s a problem I enjoy having. Lastly, they’re delicious! I find that a lot of cutouts sacrifice flavor for function. Sure, they maintain they’re perfect shape, but they taste like cardboard…with less flavor. I’ll take a slightly soft, sweet, and chewy cookie that’s a bit soft on the edges over a cardboard cutout any day.

Who’s with me?

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