The Easiest Christmas Cookies Ever

Snowflake sugar cookieAre you feeling the crunch of a long, holiday to-do list like I am? This is the most wonderful time of the year, but it’s also one of the busiest. Last weekend, our family crammed in shopping and other errands, a Christmas parade, church, buying/picking out/decorating a Christmas tree, baking cookies for and attending a Mother-Daughter Cookie Swap, not to mention watching the SEC Championship Football Game. All of these things were enjoyable and important to us, but they made for a very full schedule.

When it came time to bake cookies for the Cookie Swap we were attending, I opted for two low-stress recipes. If you’re planning on baking cookies for the holidays, you might want to try them, too.

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First, we made traditional Christmas sugar cookies. It’s become an annual tradition for our family and the girls love to decorate them. Confession: Against every ounce of foodie that I have in my being, I bought pre-made dough this year. The Pillsbury sugar cookie dough that comes in a tube. Sigh.

Now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, I must say it actually worked out pretty well. The longer the dough was out of the refrigerator, the easier it was to roll out onto parchment paper, so keep that in mind if you are trying this at home. We used a snow flake cookie cutter I bought a while back for my Frozen-obsessed four-year-old and a heart-shaped cookie cutter, because all of my traditional Christmas cookie cutters were packed away with all the decorations we hadn’t yet brought out of storage. We made a few round cookies, too. Once we baked the cookies according to the package directions, we let them cool. When it was safe to ice them, we used homemade icing (recipe here), plus a few tubes of store-bough accent icing and assorted sprinkles to give them a finished festive look. I love the flavor that almond extract gives to the icing, and the cookies were quite tasty.

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The other cookie recipe we tried, 2-Ingredient Pumpkin Cookies, was Straight Outta Pinterest (can I get that on a T-shirt? There should be one if there isn’t). I try so many Pinterest recipes, and most of them have worked out for me. This one was almost too simple to mess up. It involved a spice cake mix (again, store bought. I don’t even know who I am anymore.) and a single can of pumpkin. I mixed these in the bowl of my stand mixer. Once these ingredients combined, I scooped out spoonfuls onto the cookie pan we were using. I did this with about half of the cookie batter. To the remaining batter, I stirred in semi-sweet chocolate chips before placing spoonfuls on the cookie pan. So we made two variations of this recipe and both baked quickly.

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Meanwhile, I mixed room-temperature butter with a packet that came in the cake mix box to make pumpkin spice icing.  We added dollops of the icing to the top of the cookies without chocolate chips. If you’re looking for a dense, crunchy cookie, these are not the cookies for you, but otherwise they are a good, foolproof option. I liked the ones with chocolate chips the best. And who doesn’t love pumpkin spice?

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So there you have it – two recipes that worked for us during a very busy weekend. The cookies were well received at the Cookie Swap and the few we had left over at home passed the ultimate test – they disappeared quickly.

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At the end of the cookie baking extravaganza, our Elf on the Shelf, Snowball, guarded the oven closely. I think she’d had enough!

What are you baking this Christmas? Do you have any holiday baking traditions? Leave a comment by clicking the link just below the headline of this post.

Also, while typing this blog post, I learned about Food Network’s Bake It Forward campaign. Share a photo of whatever you are baking this season in social media using #BakeItForward and nominate a friend. For each share, Food Network will donate $1 to No Kid Hungry.

 

 

It’s Taste of the (Pensacola) Beach Time Again

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Pensacola Beach’s annual Taste of the Beach event is Friday-Saturday, September 18-19, 2015.

Friday is a ticketed, VIP event with celebrity Chef John Besh. You may know him from his highly acclaimed New Orleans restaurants: August, Besh’s Steak House and others; or you may have seen him on one of several cooking shows on TV.

Saturday is the day to go and take the whole family. Check out the schedule of events here. Chef Besh is sure to bring an impressive showcase of culinary skills to the live stage presentation. There are surfing lessons and all sorts of activities for the kids. You can sample the best food and drinks Pensacola Beach has to offer at affordable prices, hear from Chef John Besh and even get a chance to meet him during the meet and greet. A fun 80s band, the Molly Ringwalds, closes out the evening with live music.

I wrote about my experience at last year’s Taste of the Beach. It was a lot of fun and I hope I get to make it out to the beach this weekend for round 2! Yum!

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Beach Baking

Confession: I have a slight obsession with pinning recipes on Pinterest. I usually try most of them, believe it or not. When you are feeding a family of five you have to keep things interesting. Most of the recipes I try are dinner recipes, but yesterday after working on several work projects and battling the car pool line at my daughters’  school, which incidentally seems to lose all manner of civility and sense when it’s raining, it was time to bake.

This is not a mood that strikes me often (maybe there is a full moon?), but the kids sure seemed to appreciate it. We went right to Pinterest and found a recipe I’d pinned for Flourless Chewy Cinnamon Sugar Peanut Butter Cookies (originally shared on the blog Foodie Crush). We had all of the ingredients on hand and it sounded delicious, so it was an easy choice. The girls helped me add the ingredients to the bowl of the stand mixer.

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After a quick blend, the dough went into the refrigerator for an hour. Keeping the kids busy and focused on doing homework during this hour was the hardest thing about this recipe. After an hour, we rolled the dough into balls, coated them with a cinnamon and sugar mix and popped them into the oven for the 8-9 minutes indicated in the recipe. We let them cool for a few minutes afterward, then wah-la, delicious snack!

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These cookies were good and a hit with all the girls, but they are definitely sweet. It is a sugar-intensive recipe, so that was to be expected. The original pinner noted that the recipe is vegetarian and gluten free, so it may appeal to those with special diets.

This was my second attempt at flourless cookies. The first, some sort of oatmeal and mashed banana concoction, was a disaster. I’m sure there are better variations I’d know if I baked this way often, but I don’t. In fact, baking yesterday’s yummy flour-less peanut butter cookies reminded me of a vegan birthday cake our family ordered for my brother-in-law’s birthday last summer.

We purchased the cake from La Loba’s Bakery in Santa Rosa Beach, Florida, where we were spending the week for an extended family vacation. I don’t think I would have ordered a vegan cake had we not had a vegan in the family, but it was better than I expected. For vegans or anyone seeking out organic food in the South Walton County area, I’m sure this place is a boon. 

Do you like to bake? Would you bake on vacation?

Taste of the Beach at Pensacola Beach

crab-taste-of-the-beach The annual Taste of the Beach Festival at Pensacola Beach has been going strong for seven years. The 2014 event was my first time attending, and Taste of the Beach did not disappoint.
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The food, of course, is the main attraction. Our party sampled generous portions of Angry Pork Nachos, prepared by H20 at the Hilton Pensacola Beach, and cheeseburger sliders from Surf Burger. Each plate was just $5. For seafood lovers, there are plenty of options from fish tacos to peel-and-eat shrimp. Those wanting to cool off with a frosty beverage can choose a frozen cocktail or beer.

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Tables and chairs were set up under tents, providing a shady spot to enjoy your food and drinks as you look out over the Gulf. If you wanted to spend your day on the beach, you could easily come and go from the festival area to play in the sand and surf.

Chef Carla Hall, co-host on The Chew and former Top Chef finalist, entertained the crowd during a live cooking demonstration. She prepared gazpacho and kept the festival-goers engaged with an interactive presentation.

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One section of tents was designated as a Kids’ Area, which made it easy to corral the youngsters for face painting and sand crafts. Our only disappointment was that the snow cone station ran out of ice.

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Taste of the Beach was a nice way to spend a couple of hours and try delicious food prepared by Pensacola Beach chefs at an affordable price.

Hootie Hoo from Pensacola Beach


Carla Hall is packing her knives and going…to Pensacola Beach. Hall, a fan favorite and finalist on reality TV show Top Chef and now a co-host of ABC’s The Chew, is the celebrity chef for this weekend’s 2014 Taste of the Beach.

There’s no word on whether she still says “hootie hoo,” a phrase that fits the warm, playful persona that first made her popular on Top Chef. But as a fellow Southerner, Hall is sure to feel right at home with “y’all” in Northwest Florida.

She’ll be greeting fans, performing cooking demonstrations and answering questions against a scenic backdrop of crystal white sand and emerald waters. Local restaurant chefs will serve up their finest dishes, too. You can sample a wide variety of seafood and other specialties for just $5 each.

It’s a draw for foodies and those looking for something different to do. I’m hoping to see Carla, sample a few dishes, and take my kids to some of the family friendly activities. Admission is free and there are free surfing lessons, hermit crab races, hula hoop contests, a parade and more! Here’s a link to more info. for those who are interested: http://www.tasteofpensacolabeach.com/event-info/

Hope to see you at Pensacola Beach!

Gator Bait in Destin

the-swampThis crimson-blooded Alabama native has seen enough Gators after a football weekend trip to The Swamp, in Gainesville, Fla. The raucousness of the University of Florida crowd after a triple overtime win over the University of Kentucky Wildcats looked much like the scene at another reptilian retreat I visited a few weeks ago.

The scene: Destin’s Fudpucker’s restaurant at alligator feeding time.

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Just like the diners at this popular eatery, real, live alligators come hungry. Trained staff and regular restaurant-goers alike have a chance to feed these gators, which reside in a manmade swamp just outside the front door at Fudpucker’s.

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I ate at this restaurant years ago, but I don’t think they had alligators on the premises back then. (Fudpucker’s opened in 1982.) Just as I remembered, guests can (and do) leave their autographs on the walls, tables and just about any other writeable surface inside this colorful establishment.

Fudpucker’s hadn’t been on my short list of places to go in Destin for quite a while, but it’s funny how having children leads you to all sorts of places you might not otherwise go. Surprisingly, some of them are not so bad. Fudpucker’s, in fact, may be brilliant because what I remember as an area to wait for a table is now a semi-educational attraction, thanks to the alligators.

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For $3, you can purchase a bag of alligator food. Your four pellets of food are presented to you with a fishing pole-like contraption that you use to lower the bait down to the surface of the water below. Then, watch the gators swarm and CHOMP!

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The pellet snacks are an appetizer to the raw chicken pieces a staff member feeds them during a narrated demonstration. “The alligators here are young gators,” he explains. “Once they reach five or six feet in length, they are moved to other habitats as they’d become too aggressive for this environment.”

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A rare albino alligator named Pearl also resides at Fudpucker’s. She is older and has her own tank that is shielded from the sun to protect her skin.

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My children loved seeing Pearl, feeding the other alligators and asking questions about them. It was certainly a unique experience, and it would be an easy way to pass the time with young children if you in fact were waiting for a table.

On this visit, we didn’t have to wait. We were having a late lunch on Labor Day, when most of the summer vacationers had packed up and gone home. Service was good and the food was better than I expected at a big, popular tourist stop.

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Our entrees were around $10-12 each. The fish sandwich I ordered was seasoned well. My mom enjoyed a fresh salad with chicken, fruit and nuts. The kids’ menu included the usual fare and portions were good.

If you don’t go to Fudpucker’s for the food, go for the gators (even if, like me, you don’t usually “go for” Gators).

 

Fudpucker’s has locations in Destin and Ft. Walton Beach. Somewhere on the restaraunt’s walls is written “Roll Tide Roll!”

Gainesville: 43rd Street Deli

I know what you are thinking… Gainesville, Florida is not on the Gulf Coast.

Occasionally the Minivan veers away from our usual stomping grounds to explore other nearby locales. Last week, we made a stop in Gainesville on our way to Orlando.

Gainesville is the home of the University of Florida. This college town is one of the hottest places I’ve ever been, especially within the confines of The Swamp, the nickname for the Florida Gators football stadium. Gainesville is also one of the prettiest inland cities in the state. Its lush green trees and plants made for pleasant scenery as I drove through the area.

On Sunday, we enjoyed brunch at a family favorite in Northwest Gainesville, the 43rd Street Deli. This popular breakfast spot draws a crowd so plan to arrive early or be prepared to wait if necessary. The wait is always worth it. The all-breakfast Sunday menu offers several good options, including seven-grain vegan pancakes, sweet potato pancakes and this beautiful strawberry, coconut and cream cheese-topped waffle. The waffle is typically served with eggs, but I opted for the home fries, and I chose bacon instead of sausage.

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If you like eggs, there are omelets. (I don’t, so there is not much I can say about them but I’ve never heard any complaints). The 43rd Street Deli menu also lists several scrambles, which are combinations of ingredients scrambled together and served in a small skillet. Scrambles include such ingredients as spinach and mushrooms. The one I hope to try on our next visit features black beans and veggies.

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The kids menu is fairly simple. Mickey Mouse Pancakes are the only dish my kids have tried. Served with a sprinkling of chocolate chips and whipped cream on the side, Mickey never disappoints. In our experience, neither does the 43rd Street Deli.

 

 

An Old Destin Favorite: Harry T’s

One of Destin’s oldest restaurants, Harry T’s relocated to HarborWalk Village a few years ago. I was happy to see this colorful restaurant back on the scene after it closed its doors at the Destin Yacht Club. The old Harry T’s was a favorite of mine as a child. The food was pretty good and the T-shirts sold there were a coveted souvenir.

My Harry T’s T-shirt was yellow with a giraffe on water skis (or something similarly imaginative; it’s been a few years!). When I wasn’t wearing it, it shared drawer space with my A.J.’s and Back Porch T-shirts. (Did I mention I spent a lot of time in Destin?) As I got older, I remembered Harry T’s for its festive atmosphere and live music.

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It seems that not a much has changed since those glory days. I’ve been back to Harry T’s a couple of times since its reopening. Now occupying prime real estate overlooking Destin Harbor and East Pass, it has one of the best views in Destin. You can choose outdoor seating directly adjacent to the marina to take in the emerald waters and passing boats. If you dine inside, you’ll eat amongst the circus-themed memorabilia the restaurant has long been known for displaying. You’ll find TVs, too, if there is a big game you want to see during your visit.

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Harry T’s menu offers a variety of seafood dishes, sandwiches, burgers and other American fare. Our most recent visit was for a weekday lunch. We walked into Harry T’s after an unwelcoming experience at another popular restaurant we’d planned to try just down the boardwalk. The greeting and service we received at Harry T’s was outstanding. Our waitress was attentive and even brought stickers to our daughters at the end of the meal.

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The food was good. It’s not fine dining, but the kind of food you expect at a large restaurant in a resort town, and Harry T’s does it well. Our party enjoyed a variety of dishes, including a fish po’boy, fish tacos, a quesadilla and the Lighthouse Seafood Salad. The portions were substantial. Children’s menu items are served in a Harry T’s frisbee the kids can take home with them.

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We did not pick up any additional souvenirs during our visit, but the restaurant’s gift shop still offers the famous T-shirts in abundance alongside caps, keychains and koozies bearing the Harry T’s name. Maybe next time!

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What are your favorite Gulf Coast restaurants? Have you taken your family to any of the restaurants you enjoyed as a child? Leave a reply with your comments.

Cucumber Pineapple Salad

Vacationing on the Gulf Coast with my husband’s family often includes evenings spent in the beach house kitchen, with one or more of us preparing a meal for all 11 family members. Though it may sound like a chore, we enjoy cooking and having meal time together. Sure we like to eat out, too, but it can be difficult with such a large group. And somehow making dinner is much more enjoyable at the beach when you’re not feeling rushed after a long day at work and children’s extracurricular activities.

Tonight was no different. My sister-in-law made three delicious homemade pizzas – one cheese, one veggie and one sausage. I’d bought the ingredients to make a recipe I recently discovered on Pinterest, a cucumber pineapple salad, so I made it and it turned out to be a nice complement for the pizza.

This cool and refreshing salad would make a good snack after you’ve been out on the beach, too. Take advantage of the fresh fruits and vegetables of the season and try the Cucumber Salad Recipe with Pineapple and Cilantro featured on the Reluctant Entertainer blog.

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What do you like to eat on vacation? Leave a comment and let us know.