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. 

CRUISE INTO 2020 WITH BEVERAGE AND SNACK GLASSES ON WHEELS

 

  A stroll turned into a jog on the wide, pedestrian-packed Champs Elysees in Paris as my high school French language students and I realized we needed to hustle and descend into the closest metro station to get to our next destination on time. Then, something with contemporary appeal caught my eye in the bright window display of a chichi shop along the avenue. An array of expensive crystal champagne glasses were anchored by classic Matchbox cars!

  The combo of crystal and colorful toy cars, like those I recalled from my brother’s childhood collection, was whimsical and magical. Having no time to snap a photo, I quickly herded my students down the metro steps and onto the train. 

  Thankfully, 10 years later, when hosting a family-style New Year’s party for neighbors, that window display image somehow resurfaced in my brain, and I went to work to create an inexpensive, kid-friendly version of what I now refer to as “glassware on wheels.” 

  I purchased reusable plastic tumblers and champagne glasses with detachable bases at a discount store and attached the stem, minus the base, to the tops of die-cast toy cars and other small toy vehicles with big globs of glue.

  Filled with bubbly beverages (we combine sparkling water with juice) and/or with popcorn, candy and nuts, we give them a gentle shove and watch them cruise down the table to entertain guests.  Festive conversation starters, they can be a New Year’s Eve memory for your family, too. 

  When the wheels stop in front of you, raise your glass for a toast to 2020!

  PARTY BEVERAGE AND SNACK GLASSES ON WHEELS

  Here’s the stuff you need:

  — clear plastic reusable cups with detachable bases such as champagne coupes with stems and/or small juice style tumblers (available at some discount stores and party supply stores)

  — die-cast toy car or small vehicle for each glass

  — glue gun

  Here’s the fun:

  1. Wash and dry plastic glassware. (You won’t need the detachable bases.)

  2. An adult should apply a big blob of glue to the top of a vehicle, set glassware stem in glue and hold until completely set. Add more glue around the sides of the stem. Let set, and repeat. 

  3. Place on a serving tray, always lifting from the vehicle. When ready to use, fill half-full with juice, sparkling water, cider and/or snack foods. Handle with care as you let them roll on a smooth table or counter.

  Notes: Glue may damage the paint on cars if you try to remove them from the plastic cups. Hand wash. 

FALL FAMILY LIVING A-Z

  It’s officially fall. Kids storm through the front door after school and toss their backpacks in the hallway; you’re just home from work, and there’s dinner to be made and maybe soccer practice or piano lessons to get to after the last bite. 

  Sounds like a busy routine. How do you choose which extra family fun stuff to fit in on your calendar along with a few must-dos? 

  I’ve discovered with my kids and friends that the basic ABC’s can provide a simple, creative framework for visually highlighting the essentials: family outings, household repairs, discoveries and activities.

  This year, my list includes not only must-do chores, but also fall excursions, new foods to try, service opportunities and family adventures. The only caveat is that you need to find an open alphabet letter to describe the event. That helps keep all the ideas and inspiration under control.

  Here’s how it works:

  I listed all 26 alphabet letters on a medium-size white board hanging in our kitchen. Engage your child to make the A-Z list. Events and activities are described by their corresponding letter. Friends who drop by add ideas they would like to do with us, too. For example, our 8-year-old neighbor was eager for me to teach him how to make applesauce with the new crop of Honeycrisp apples that had arrived at our farmer’s market last weekend. I brought out our peeler gadget for him to crank out slices for the kid friendly recipe. Check off “A.” 

  The “B” is noted with “build a berm around our foundation,” to prevent a wet basement during the continuing rainy season. “C” reminds us to gather clothes to take to Goodwill, and “D” to deliver “Meals on Wheels.” Scanning down the alphabet to “M,” I’ve already released the monarch butterfly my 16-month-old granddaughter and I observed pop out of its chrysalis. 

  Soon, I’ll be shifting attention to “Z,” a reminder to compose a colorful zinnia bouquet from our garden before the snow falls.

  No need to end a first round of A-Z activities when seasons change. Check off what has been accomplished and enjoyed, then erase or simply add a new event. Spelling out in detail from A-Z what has been done, and what is left to do, will continue to serve as a visual reminder to family of your active, giving and community-involved lifestyle.

  By the way, good luck finding ideas for  Q’s and U’s!

MAKE A “STAINED GLASS WINDOW’ WITH CRAYON BITS

 

  When life feels overscheduled, I try to remind myself to stop and take a breath. When I do, it’s the trips I’ve taken and recollections of places I’ve been to that often come to mind. The pause gives me another perspective.

  One such memory was a trip to Gothic Chartres cathedral. Situated on the outskirts of Paris, the stony cathedral, perhaps one of the most beautiful in France, is celebrated for its stained glass windows. When the sun streams through, colors seem suspended, glistening in the air. 

  You can create a striking “stained glass window” for your home, but you don’t need fancy bits of glass. Instead, devise a stunning look with a little creativity and simple supplies, like crayon bits. 

  Here’s the stuff you need:

  — crayons in assorted colors, peeled and sorted

  — cheese grater

  — newspaper 

  — waxed paper

  — old cloth napkin or hanky

  — iron

  — large dinner-size round plate for pattern

  — scissors

  — black construction paper

  — glue

  — ribbon or fishing line

  Here’s the fun:

  Use the grater to make crayon shavings from the peeled crayons. Sort them into piles by color and shade.

  Lay a large sheet of waxed paper, waxed side up, on a small stack of newspaper on an ironing board. Sprinkle the shavings evenly over the waxed paper, mixing or separating colors. The colors will seem to fall into their own delicate pattern. 

  Set a second sheet of waxed paper, waxed side down, on top. Cover with the lightweight cloth. With an iron set at warm, an adult should press very slowly along the cloth, stopping and starting. The crayon bits will melt almost instantly. Remove the cloth to see the beautiful “stained glass.” Let the crayons harden.

  Use the plate as a pattern and cut out a round shape from your “stained glass” sheet. To create an outer frame, (the “lead” of the “stained-glass window”) use the plate as a pattern again, and cut a 3/4-inch wide ring out of black construction paper. Set on the round shape crayon design and glue in place. 

  Cut two narrower (about 1/4 inch) rings of black paper (one larger in diameter than the other) and evenly place on the inside of the “window.” Arrange strips of black paper coming from the circles like spokes on a wheel. Glue and let dry

  Punch a hole at the top of the stained glass window, and string ribbon or fishing line though the “lead” frame. Then hang in front of a window and watch the sun stream through to brighten your home. 

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.

PERSONAL PITA PIZZAS

I took an informal poll in my neighborhood with the question, “What do kids like to eat most?” I noted responses from both adults and kids, like mac and cheese, burgers, tacos and chicken fingers. But, to no surprise, pizza dominated. Maybe it’s because it offers something for all tastes.

  If pizza reigns in your house, throw an informal Halloween pizza party, or another get-together with family and friends this school year. Planning and hosting can be creative and easy to cater for all tastes when you keep it simple. 

  Instead of preparing and shaping pizza dough in advance, here’s the shortcut: Make personal pizzas together using pita bread available at a bakery or grocery store. Provide the toppings so guests can enjoy putting their pita pizzas together assembly-line fashion, letting everyone choose their favorites as they go for unique combos. It’s an ideal set-up for picky pizza eaters who prefer their favorite toppings.

  FAMILY-STYLE PERSONAL PITA PIZZAS 

  TOMATO SAUCE

  The pizza-making begins with a good tomato sauce. Purchase your favorite sauce, or make this homemade recipe that goes together in minutes. Enlist your school-age child to measure and stir the chunky sauce.

  For 2 1/2 cups, mix together in a bowl: a 14-ounce can diced tomatoes and a 6-ounce can tomato paste, 1 teaspoon dried oregano, 1 teaspoon garlic powder, 1 teaspoon sugar, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil. (For a smooth sauce, whirl in a blender). 

  TOPPINGS

  Classic kid-pleasing toppings include bowls of shredded mozzarella cheese, sliced pepperoni, red onion thinly sliced into rings, sliced mushrooms, chopped bell pepper and pitted olives. For variety, and to accommodate adult tastes, you might include marinated artichoke hearts and drained oil-packed sun-dried tomato slices. 

  For a seasonal option, skip the tomato sauce and layer your pita pizza with Italian shredded cheeses, sauteed onion and slices of an apple or pear. Sprinkle with crumbled gorgonzola and fresh thyme.

  SET-UP 

  At one end of a counter or table, stack pita bread and small plates. Continue assembly-line fashion with the bowls of sauce, toppings and ending with baking sheets. 

  ASSEMBLE

  Invite guests to place a pita bread on a plate. Spread with sauce, if using, then add toppings according to taste. When complete, remove from plate and set on baking sheet. 

  BAKE

  Bake in a 400 F preheated oven for 10-15 minutes or until cheese is bubbly and pita is crisp. 

“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!

BOW-OH-WOW! VALENTINE TREATS FOR YOUR PET


Middle-school English teacher Alex Eckroth calls herself the “queen of takeout.” It’s rare to find her scrolling through online recipes or thumbing through tattered pages of a cookbook. Unless, as she readily admits, she’s baking treats for her adorable pug, Bomba.
“Dogs have a sweet tooth, like me,” she says, “but when it comes to shopping for treats, it’s tricky to find dog biscuits with ingredients I want to feed Bomba. I like to bake treats for him using heart-healthy ingredients like whole wheat, rolled oats and peanut butter. It’s relaxing and fun to do, plus I enjoy sharing them with our neighborhood canine friends.”
If you’re fond of your fido, bake a batch of these crunchy dog biscuits with your kids for Valentine’s Day pet treats and gifts. This simple recipe comes together in minutes — no mixer needed, just a big wooden spoon and your kids’ energy to stir everything together.
Create shapes with heart-shaped cookie cutters. Small hearts, big hearts, and how about a few X’s and O’s?

DOG BISCUITS
1 1/2 cups whole-wheat flour
1/2 cup rolled oats
1/4 cup wheat germ
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 cup peanut butter                                                                                                                                                     1 cup evaporated milk or evaporated goat’s milk
1 tablespoon molasses
All-purpose flour for rolling dough
Makes about 5 dozen 2-inch heart-shaped biscuits.

Preheat oven to 350 F. Grease two cookie sheets, or line them with parchment paper. Set aside.
To make dough: In a large mixing bowl, combine dry ingredients. In a smaller bowl, combine peanut butter, milk and molasses. Slowly pour peanut butter mixture into dry ingredients. Stir until well-combined.

To shape biscuits: Sprinkle all-
purpose flour on the counter. Knead dough a few times, until it is easy to roll out into a rectangle that’s 1/4 to 1/2 inch thick with rolling pin. Using cookie cutters, cut dough into shapes. Transfer to prepared cookie sheets.

To bake biscuits: Bake for 15-20 minutes, or until edges are lightly browned. Place on cooling rack. Cool completely.

To wrap: Divide your pretty “doggone cool” biscuits into gift bags or heart-shaped paper pockets. Attach valentine tag and deliver to neighborhood dog friends on Valentine’s Day.

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?”