A Little Yule Cheer: Hot Spiced Apple Cider

I love sipping a steaming drink when it’s chilly outside, especially if I can do it while siting beside a twinkling Christmas tree. As a matter of fact, I’m sipping a delicious beverage as I write this post. It’s so mellow and satisfying and so easy to make, it would be selfish of me not to share the recipe with you. The base of the beverage is apple cider, which is simmered briefly with fresh orange slices, cinnamon sticks, star anise and whole cloves. The whole process takes approximately 15 minutes, resulting in a spiffed-up cider that will tickle your tongue and warm your soul.

Hot Spiced Apple Cider

  • 1 quart fresh apple cider (4 cups)
  • 1 orange, thinly sliced
  • 2 star anise
  • 6 whole cloves
  • 5 cinnamon sticks
  1. In a medium saucepan, combine the apple cider, orange slices, star anise, whole cloves and one cinnamon stick, broken into 2 in. pieces.
  2. Heat the mixture over medium high heat until just beginning to boil.
  3. Immediately reduce the heat to low and simmer for 10 minutes.
  4. Remove the pan from the heat. Remove and discard the spices and orange slices.
  5. Pour the cider into four mugs. Add a long cinnamon stick to each mug.
  6. Serve piping hot.

Some notes:

1. This recipe is easily adaptable to big batches. If you want a gallon of spiced cider, quadruple all ingredients.

2. I have a small sieve that I place over my mug. Then, I ladle from the pot to my mug without removing any of the goodies. This allows all the spices to continue to steep if I’m not serving the whole batch at once.

3. Leftover spiced cider can be stored in the fridge for later. Rewarm on the stove or in the microwave when you are in the mood for more warm appley sweetness.

4. The star anise is pretty but not necessary. If you don’t have any on hand, don’t sweat it. I’ve made this cider many times without star anise and it’s still delish.

A Little Yule Cheer: Day 14 (Sour Cream Sugar Cookies)

There are so many things I could say about sour cream sugar cookies:

  1.  They are the perfect miniature version of the big cakey Pennsylvania Dutch sugar cookies seen around here at farmer’s markets and bakeries – soft and airy with a just-sweet-enough frosting.
  2. They are e-a-s-y to mix up and bake.  If you bake even occasionally, you probably have all the ingredients in your pantry or fridge.
  3. Their potential for decorating possibilities is endless.  For anyone who likes messing with colored frosting, sprinkles, non-pareils, and sanding sugar, these cookies are the bomb.
  4. They are a cornerstone in my husband’s family’s Christmas culinary traditions.  I’m sure there would be grave disappointment if Grandma ever came to Christmas brunch without her anticipated cookies; some might even think the earth would cease rotating on its axis.  The recipe is my mother-in-law’s and I’m grateful she shared it with me.
  5. Even though they make adorable Christmas cookies,  they aren’t just for Christmas.  Seasonal sprinkles make these an adaptable cookie recipe for any time of year.

All of the above statements are true and interesting.  However, the most relevant and compelling thing I will say, as I sit here stuffing yet another sugar cookie in my mouth, is that you need to make these cookies just because they are so. darn. good.  Seriously.


Sour Cream Sugar Cookies (adapted from Arlene Yoder’s recipe)

2 cups sugar

1 cup unsalted butter, softened

4 eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 teaspoon cream of tartar

4 1/2 cups flour

2 teaspoons baking soda

1 cup sour cream

Preheat the oven to 350°.  Cream the sugar, butter, eggs and vanilla for 7 – 8 minutes.  Whisk dry ingredients in a medium bowl.  Add dry ingredients to the creamed mixture, alternating with the sour cream, beginning and ending with the dry ingredients.  Gently fold each addition into the batter.

Place cookie dough (still in mixing bowl) in the refrigerator to chill for at least an hour.  This step is optional but the cookies are plumper and spread less during baking if you do it.  It will not change the flavor or texture of the cookie at all so if you are pressed for time, skip this part with a clear conscience.

Cover cookie sheet with parchment paper.  Drop cookie dough by rounded teaspoons onto the cookie sheet 2 inches apart.  Bake for 10 – 11 minutes or until lightly browned.  Let cookies cool on baking sheet for about 3 minutes and them move to cooling rack.  Allow cookies to cool completely.  Frost cookies with butter frosting.  Makes approximately 4 1/2 dozen cookies.

Butter Frosting

1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened

4 cups confectioner’s sugar

4 – 8 Tablespoons milk

2 teaspoons vanilla

Beat butter and sugar in a small bowl with a hand mixer.  Add vanilla and milk.  The amount of milk will depend on the consistency you want.  I prefer a thicker frosting so I usually use about 4 Tablespoons.  Add the milk by tablespoonfuls so that you have better control over the frosting’s consistency.  Beat until smooth and well blended.  Add food coloring now, if desired.  Apply frosting to cookies.  Add any embellishments – sprinkles, jimmies, non-pareils, sanding sugar, etc. – at this time.

Pour yourself a glass of ice cold milk.  Pop a cookie (or two) in your mouth.  Mmmmmm…  See what I mean?  So. Darn. Good.



A Little Yule Cheer: Day 2 (Cream Cheese Cutouts)

I have a thing for sanding sugar and sprinkles.  I also have a thing for baking cookies, especially at Christmas.  Cream cheese cutouts combine my “things” in the best possible way.  The cream cheese adds a more grown-up flavor than regular sugar cookies.  The cookies have a delicate texture and flavor that is enhanced by the citrus zest and juice (I prefer orange for Christmas)  and the sanding sugar doesn’t feel like overload because the cookies aren’t overly sweet.

Beware, though.  Cream cheese cutouts go down easy.  Too easy.  If you aren’t careful, none of your cookies will make it to the cookie jar to fill your kitchen with sparkly Christmas cheer.  The good news: the recipe doubles and even triples well so you can take precautions against too many disappearing cookies by making back-up batches.  The hardest part of the whole process is choosing the color(s) of sugar and the cookie cutter shape(s).  If only all decisions were this much fun!


Cream Cheese Cutouts (barely adapted from the 1989 edition of The Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook)

1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened

1  3 ounce package of cream cheese, softened

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 cup sugar

1 egg

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon finely shredded lemon or orange zest

1 tablespoon lemon or orange juice

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

Any sanding sugars or sprinkles your heart desires

  1. Preheat oven to 375°F.
  2. With an electric mixer, beat butter and cream cheese on medium to high speed for 30 seconds.  Add about half of the flour, the sugar , egg, baking powder, orange or lemons zests and juice  and vanilla.  Beat until thoroughly combined.  Beat in remaining flour.  Divide the dough in half, wrap in plastic wrap and chill for at least an hour.*
  3. On a cool, lightly floured surface, roll out half the dough 1/8 inch thick.**   Cut into desired shapes with your favorite cookie cutters, dipping the cutter in flour between cuts.  Place same sized shapes one inch apart on a parchment- lined cookie sheet.  Sprinkle any festive decorations over the cutouts with abandon at this time.  Bake at 375° for approximately 8 minutes or until the edges of the cookies are lightly browned.  (Cooking times will vary based on cookie size).  Let cookies cool for five minutes on the baking sheet and then move them to a wire rack to cool completely.
  4. Gather up the scraps and place them back in the fridge to cool down again.  Repeat Step 3 with the second half of the dough.  Only roll out each half of the dough twice.  Beyond that point, too much extra flour is mixed into the dough and you’ll end up with tough cookies.  Tough cookies = no good.
  5. A 2 1/2 inch cookie cutter will yield approximately 60 cookies.  My snowman was about 3 1/2 inches which yielded about 40 cookies.

* Dough should be very cold before you start to work with it.  This will reduce the level of frustration exponentially, trust me.

** I put ice in a ziplock bag and lay it on the counter for several minutes before rolling out any cookie dough.  The dough is easier to work when the counter is cool and the chilly temperature helps the cutouts keep their shape.  This makes very pretty cookies.  Pretty cookies = very good.



Best-Ever Oatmeal Cookies

     There is something wonderful about discovering that someone or something is better than I expected.  To illustrate my point, I’m sharing a cookie recipe that at first glance seems rather ordinary.  When I first discovered it in the May 2003 issue of Parenting magazine, I was underwhelmed.  A plain Jane oatmeal cookie with no spices, fruit, nuts, or chips and only a hint of almond flavoring (which I don’t even like) to jazz things up – why should I even waste my time?  But the cookie’s hefty title kept nagging at me; I couldn’t let it rest until I found out why these particular oatmeal cookies were the “best-ever”.  After baking the first of many batches, I realized I needed to raise the bar on my idea of simple oatmeal cookies because the goodies coming out of my oven were anything but boring.


     Everything about these mellow morsels is pleasantly surprising.  The dough is ridiculously easy to put together and the ingredients are probably already in your kitchen.  (Unless, of course, you are like me and have to make a special trip to the grocery store to pick up that exotic almond extract).  The cookies bake up really airy, are just sweet enough, and have a wonderful chewy texture.  And the almond extract, which I originally wrinkled my nose at, is the ingredient that I think takes these cookies from ordinary to extraordinary.

     Now, let’s be honest.  Best-Ever Oatmeal Cookies are not showy, frou-frou, center-stage cookies for baby showers and Christmas parties.  They are humble workhorse cookies meant for snacks after naptime and school and for lunch boxes and road trips and days at the beach.  They have no aspirations to be anything but utilitarian and that’s OK.  They can handle the ordinary every day cookie responsibilities – dipping in milk or hot chocolate, sandwiching a scoop of vanilla ice cream, popping in someone’s mouth straight from the oven or later from the cookie jar – and they do it with delicious grace.

    Go on.  Give them a try.  And be prepared to be pleasantly surprised.

Best-Ever Oatmeal Cookies (adapted from Cynthia Philips, Parenting May 2003)

1 cup brown sugar

1 cup white sugar

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 teaspoon almond extract

2 eggs

2 cups quick-cooking oatmeal

1 teaspoon baking soda

2 cups flour

1. Preheat your oven to 350°F.  Cream both sugars, butter, vanilla and almond extract in a bowl for 2-3 minutes until pale and fluffy.  Add the eggs, one at a time, and mix well.

2. Mix the oatmeal, baking soda, and flour in a separate bowl; add to the butter and sugar mixture and stir together until everything is incorporated into the dough completely.

3. Drop the dough by teaspoonfuls onto ungreased baking sheets.*  Bake approximately 12 minutes, or until lightly browned around the edges.  Cool cookies slightly before removing them from the cookie sheet.  Cool completely on cooling racks.

Yields approximately 3 1/2 dozen cookies.

*I like to use parchment paper when I’m baking cookies.  It keeps the bottoms of the cookies from getting too dark, they don’t stick to the baking sheet and clean-up is a breeze.


Strawberry and Spinach Salad

I love strawberries.

When ripened by an early summer sun and freshly picked from the patch in my backyard or purchased from a near-by farm stand, they are supremely delicious.  My family and I eat them by the bucketful on an almost daily basis in May and June – sliced in a bowl with a bit of sugar and whipped cream, piled on vanilla ice cream, mixed in cereal, crushed between shortcakes, or simply eaten straight out of the box.  (Now my mouth is watering.)

Even when they aren’t in season, I’m not above buying and eating strawberries grown in faraway places like Florida and California.  (Target, of all places, has quality berries for the best price around.)  While not quite as sublime as the homegrown, in-season berries I prefer, they are usually good enough to quell the symptoms of withdrawal that pop up during those long empty months without the homegrown variety.

A few years ago, my sister-in-law, Rebecca, brought a strawberry and spinach salad to our family Easter dinner that transported me to a whole new level of strawberry enjoyment.  With its juxtaposition of deep red berries and dark green leaves, it was as satisfying to look at as it was to eat.  The humble dressing gently magnified the sweet-tartness of the strawberries.  And the nutritional punch of the spinach alone was enough to cancel out the sugar load in the dressing and inject the eater (namely, me) with a small dose of self-righteousness.

On that spring afternoon, I fell in love.  With strawberry and spinach salad.

Rebecca was gracious enough to share her recipe with me.  And now I’m sharing it here, with you.  It is such a quick and simple dish, and yet, every time I toss it together and serve it up, people rave and compliment – as if I really had anything to do with the perfection they are seeing and tasting.  In this case, the ingredients do all the work.  My only job is to help them find each other.


See what I mean?  It’s gorgeous.

Go ahead.  Give it a try…..

Strawberry and Spinach Salad  (from Rebecca, my sister-in-law)


1 bag of spinach

1 quart of strawberries, washed and sliced but NOT sweetened


1/2 cup oil (I use canola)

1/4 cup cider vinegar

1/2 cup sugar

1/4 teaspoon paprika

1/4 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

1 1/2 teaspoon minced onion

2 tablespoons sesame seeds (not necessary but desirable)

Combine spinach and strawberries.  Mix the dressing together and pour over the salad.  Enjoy! 

Note: I only make half a recipe of the dressing.  For me, that is just that right amount of zingy liquid for this salad.  It’s a personal preference – I don’t like my greens to be swimming in dressing.