Saturday, December 20, 2014

Chocolate Toffee Caramel Bars & Our Holiday Dessert Round-Up!

We just finished our final round of holiday baking and boy did we save the most addictive for last.  These Chocolate Toffee Caramel Bars are no joke.  They have the ability to ignite some primal survival mode in which you will lie, hoard, and drop kick smaller persons in order to preserve them for yourself.

My friend's aunt sent a care package with these on our first deployment.  My gracious and clearly delusional friend said we could grab one from under her cot where she stored them "whenever we wanted".  A ridiculous scene followed in which a handful of us would attempt to sneak over to her area and steal a piece (or five) without being noticed by the others. Those suckers were gone as fast as they came.

We begged her for the recipe and have been making them ever since.  And the best part is they're surprisingly easy to make.

Wanna try some for yourself?  Of course you do. 
(If you want to spare yourself the 10 extra pounds you will inevitably gain from this recipe, you can skip it and scroll down to our holiday dessert round-up!  Which also won't help in the waistline department, but your tummy will be happy.)

You'll need all this good stuff and few other things....

1 package Moist Supreme Butter Cake Mix (I've also used a yellow cake mix)
1/3 cup oil
2 eggs
12 oz package (2 cups) semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 cup white chocolate chips
3/4 cup Heath chocolate covered toffee bits

1/2 cup butter
Approx 32 soft caramels (I buy one bag of Worther's)
14 oz can sweetened condensed milk (heavy cream works too)

Preheat oven to 350 and grease a 9x13 baking pan.  In a large bowl combine the cake mix, oil and eggs.  Blend well.  Stir in chips and candy bar pieces - the mixture will be very thick. 

Press half of the mixture into the bottom of the greased pan and bake for 10 min.

Meanwhile, combine the butter, caramels, and cond. milk in a medium saucepan.  Heat on med-low stirring continuously until melted and smooth. Slowly pour the caramel mixture evenly over the partially baked crust. 

I prefer a thinner caramel center, so I only use half of this mixture and save the other half for another batch.

Place the remaining dough on top of the caramel layer.  This is the toughest part because the sauce is hot and it's hard to spread anything over it without messing up the bottom layer.  So, the best way I've found is to dip my fingers in a bit of flour and then flatten small chunks of dough at a time.

I place the flattened piece of dough on top of the caramel and continue this until the caramel is covered. 

It's fine to have a couple of small gaps.

Then it goes back in the oven for an additional 20-25 min or until the top is set and the edges are golden brown

Gently run a knife around the sides and cool for 45 minutes.  It's easiest to cut these into bars once they are completely cool and set, so we put the pan in the fridge for an additional 30 min or so and then cut. 

Then, we devour them.

You can download a printable version right here.

And just in case you missed any of the sugar-laden holiday yumminess from the past couple weeks and the archives, I've got a round up of our favorite holiday treats.  Time to get your bake on!

Yummy round up of easy holiday desserts!

These Chocolate Mint Cookies are a holiday staple around here.  You can find the recipe at  The only change we made is instead of breaking off a piece of Andes chocolate and placing it on the hot cookie to melt, we melt a cup of these baking chips in a bowl and spoon some over the top.  YUM.

We shared our family recipe and top tips for getting soft, chewy, melt-in-your mouth sugar cookies that still keep their shape.

This Classic Apple Crisp recipe from my aunt is just the absolute best....and totally flexible to your tastes/preferences.

If you love pecan pie but have an issue with large nuts in your dessert, or you just love pecan pie, then this recipe for Pecan Bars is for you.

Looking for something on the lighter side?  These Lemon Bars are a childhood staple at our home and a refreshing after dinner treat.

I don't think you can ever go wrong with a coffee flavored dessert.  This recipe for Cappuccino Cake looks and tastes uber fancy without all the fancy work.

This Salted Chocolate Shortbread recipe is something a little different, and completely divine.

And last but not least, these Orange Chocolate Chippers give a little zing to your average chocolate chip cookie. And they are the softest in the land.

Whether you're baking, wrapping, traveling, or resting, I hope you enjoy this last weekend before Christmas!

Thanks so much for reading! We would love to hang out!
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Thursday, December 18, 2014

Easy Homemade Gift Idea: Pocket Handwarmers

If my daughter had her way we would be making every single gift from scratch and writing the book on a hand-made Christmas.  Not. happening.  At 8 months pregnant I just did not have it in me to go all out with sewing and crafting this year, but....I also didn't want to disappoint my mini-maker.  She's been asking to learn how to use the sewing machine, so we picked an easy gift idea that we could make without a lot of fuss or dollars. 

It turned out to be a super simple project....and also perfect for those "Shoot, I forgot to grab a gift for____!"

super easy rice filled pocket handwarmers

If you have pieces of scrap fabric and rice, you can bust out this project in just a few minutes. I started by laying a piece of fabric on my daughter's hand to get an idea of size.  They do "puff up" once filled with the rice, so we found a 2"x2" square template worked well (especially since you'll lose a bit to seam allowance).

I used the same 2 inch square as my template for all cutting and cut out no short of a billion squares from various fabrics.  Then.....

...we placed two fabric squares together with right sides facing in.

...we sewed three of the four sides together, making sure to reinforce the corners, then flipped it right side out.

...we filled the bag just over halfway full of rice.

Make sure you leave enough space to fold in the unfinished edges and sew it shut.

Since we were making a large number of these, I didn't take the time to hand sew them closed, but that would look the most finished.  Lazy-pants here just folded in the unfinished sides and ran it through the sewing machine to close up the bag.

Then tie them up by two's, add a tag if you like, and call it done! 
super easy rice filled pocket handwarmers

To use, simply pop in the microwave for 10-15 seconds and toss into your jacket pockets to keep your hands nice and toasty on a cold day.  You could also throw these in the freezer as a mini cold pack for minor boo-boos.

These would be a fun addition to a package full of warm and tasty treats or perfect as part of a teacher gift idea.
super easy rice filled pocket handwarmers

Had I thought about it sooner I would have added some cinnamon or spices to give it a festive aroma.  Lavender, vanilla, and other scents would be great for other occasions too!

What simple homemade gifts do you have up your sleeve?

Thanks so much for reading! We would love to hang out!
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Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Tips For Getting the Perfect Cake-like Cut-Out Sugar Cookies

My sister-in-law makes the best sugar cookies.  And I mean the BEST.  She was kind enough to let me share the recipe here awhile back (find the post here and a printable version of the recipe here).

I thought with her secret recipe in hand, I would just whip up a batch and soon be basking in the abundance of chewy frosted goodness.  But that's not exactly how it went down.

My shapes were more like indiscernible blobs and they were far more crunchy that her melt-in-your-mouth version.  What did I do wrong? I followed the recipe to the letter!

It turns out that cut-out sugar cookies are a bit of an art least if you're picky about how you like them. It starts with a great recipe, but there are some key steps that will ensure you get soft, chewy shapes every time.

Looking back, I made a few newbie mistakes (like cutting the time the dough spent in the fridge). So after a few more attempts at this recipe and a few more tweaks, we now have a tried and true method that's an easy family favorite.

Now when I say "perfect", I don't mean those impeccably frosted masterpieces you almost don't want to bite into because they're so pretty.....although that's never stopped me in the end.   You're always going to get the unmistakably home-made looking variety around here.  But I promise you, they will taste amazing! 

Here's how we get soft, chewy sugar cookies (in identifiable shapes) every time....

1. Don't Overwork The Dough
I think this goes for most cookies/baking, but avoid over mixing and over working your dough.  I stop my mixer as soon as all the ingredients come together but are well integrated.  Since you're going to be rolling and handling this dough even more, do your best to avoid over mixing it in the bowl.  I work any lingering flour in by hand.

2.  Don't Skip The Fridge
Most sugar cookie dough needs to be chilled.  This not only helps the cookies keep their shape once cut out but it also prevents the cookies from being too crunchy.  So don't cheat!!  Our recipe calls for the dough to be chilled one hour.  If you're short on time, pop it in the freezer for 30 min, but DO NOT skip this step!  And also do number 3....

3.  Flatten the Dough Before Chilling
I used to just pop the dough into the fridge in a giant ball.  It took longer for the dough to fully chill and made it really difficult to roll out.  Now I lay out a long sheet of Press N Seal, dump the freshly mixed dough on top, then spread it out to a rectangular shape about 1 inch think. I make sure it's all wrapped up (usually needing one more sheet of Press N Seal) and pop it in the fridge.
  It chills much faster and more evenly...and it's much easier to roll out when it's time to bake!

4.  Not Too Thin
When it's time to roll out the dough I break off about a 1/3 chunk from my chilled rectangle and place it on a well floured cutting board or mat. 

 Roll out the dough as evenly as possible but not too thin.  The cookie will keep it's cut shape much better with a thicker dough and it will also give them that to-die-for cake like quality.  I aim for 1/4" thick

5. Dip Your Cutters In Flour
If you find your dough sticking to your cutter or having to wrestle it out, dip the cutter in a bit of flour first.  

6.  Maximize The Dough Space
Try to get your shapes as close as possible and use as much of the dough as you can the first time around. 

After that, ball up the extras, add some more flour, and roll out again.  I try not to do this more than 2 times with each piece of dough.  The more you work the dough the softer and warmer it gets....meaning the more likely it is to end up a flat cookie.

7.  Chill The Shapes In Waiting
Our recipe makes a pretty large amount of dough.  If I'm baking it all the same day, I will place the cut shapes on a sheet of parchment or wax paper and keep them in the fridge until I'm ready to pop them on the tray for the oven.  I have two insulated baking sheets that I swear by for cookies.  So, when I'm cooking large batches I often have to reuse a warm cookie sheet.  I wait until the very last second to put the shapes on from the fridge so the dough doesn't start to warm up or spread.

8.  Do Not Over Bake!!!
For a soft, chewy cookie, this is the most important tip!  And it took me awhile to figure out the right time on my oven for a cookie that was "just" done but not raw in the middle.  I promise to update this post with a pic of this but in the meantime, here's what I look for:

Wait until the center of the cookie no longer appears wet or shiny but do not let the edges brown.  If I check the cookies and the center is still uncooked, I check it every minute after that and pull them as soon as the center is done. Smaller cookies will take less time and larger/thicker shapes take longer.

Once they have cooled completely you can frost away or save the frosting for another day.  Just be sure to store them in an air tight container.

9.  Break It Up
If even the mention of making sugar cookies from scratch feels completely overwhelming, try breaking up the steps over a few days.  We used to set aside a day for baking, but now I try to save myself some time and sanity.  I usually make a quick batch of dough the day before and store it in the fridge....the next day we'll cut out the shapes and bake....and the following day is for frosting.  It can be a messy job, especially if you get the littles involved, so spacing it out might just be the ticket to everyone living through the process.  And hey, you get delicious sugar cookies at the end of it! 

*I would love to hear from you veteran sugar cookie bakers!  What are your best tips?  I know some swear by certain baking sheets/pans/etc or maybe you have a special ingredient that makes your cookies out of this world.  Let's hear it! 

And good luck to anyone taking on some holiday baking this week!

Thanks so much for reading! We would love to hang out!
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Wednesday, December 10, 2014

DIY Advent Wreath

We've never had an Advent wreath and every year it's on my holiday to-do/acquire list. Then, somehow the season slips by with nary a purple candle in sight.

So this year....this year!  I would do it and do it before Advent started.

Then, I couldn't find purple or pink candles at the craft store....and my wreath was too high and close to the wicks for the candles I did get...and the makeshift platform we constructed to raise them up wasn't exactly "stable".

I was tempted to run right back out to the store, but decided to make do with what I had at home.  We ended up with something a little non-traditional, but we've enjoyed it's light at dinner every night (even though it was a couple of days into Advent before I finished it).

This project was far too simple to rate a tutorial, but here's the basic idea....

platter + greens + candles + pink/purple

I ended up using this (plastic) silver plate that I had under our too-big wreath as a base, but any plate or serving platter will do.  I think a cake stand could also be awesome.
When James trimmed the lower branches off our tree, I snagged up those trimmings and started tucking them around/under the candles. 

I couldn't find pink and purple candles at the store, so I grabbed something in those colors that I could add to a white candle.  I loved these mini ornaments, but you could use anything....colored ribbon, a scrapping embellishment, a strip of paper with washi tape, or you could even paint-dip the lower half.
Just to keep things from getting too blinged out, I used some natural twine to tie on the bulbs.

The kids love taking turns lighting and blowing the candles out each day and it's become a little spot of serenity in the house for me too....if I ignore the breakfast crumbs on the table and under my feet.

This little project was a good reminder that things don't have to be expensive or elaborate to be special.  I can easily get wrapped up with a vision for something, but whenever I'm forced to use what I have, I usually end up just as happy with the results.  Maybe even more so knowing that I didn't spend more money to bring it together.   

Thanks so much for reading! We would love to hang out!
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