Mama’s Day off…

John is on vacation this week and he has made plans to work on his motorcycles, take the kids dirt bike riding and get organized for the New Year. I think it is wonderful that he is taking some time off and relaxing from his very stressful job. But, it made me think that I don’t get vacation days to plan to do as I want. I am not resentful of John taking time off from work to do want he enjoys but I would like the same luxury.

So, I am taking Friday off. This is my first vacation day in 10 years. I will not be doing laundry, washing dishes, cooking meals or anything else that I would do on a typical work day. Instead I will be sleeping late, take a nice run, eating lunch with a friend and doing some end of year shopping at our local thrift stores. I am not sure why I didn’t think of this sooner. There is no reason why Mama can’t have a day off. John is perfectly capable of handling the necessary parts of my job – feeding the kids and keeping them safe – so why not give myself some time off?

I don’t expect that I will get too many of these days during the regular school year but maybe I can take some 1/2 days off instead (someone has to be here to get the kids off the bus at 2:30). Part of the problem is me. I have a hard time letting things go and doing something relaxing instead of working. I am making one of my New Year’s resolutions to slow down and take more time for myself and enjoy what is around me. Who knows what I will do on one of my 1/2 days off? Maybe I will go to a movie by myself. Or I can go get my hair done. Or I can just sit around in my pjs and read a good book. Whatever I do, I need to incorporate some vacation time into my work schedule. After all, all work and no play makes Tiffany a very dull girl.

New year, New budget…

2012 is just days away and with it is a new budget. This is actually one of my favorite things to do during the new year. I love the feeling of starting fresh with new goals and an empty spreadsheet just waiting to be filled in with lots of data. It is also a time to reflect back on the year that has just passed and see how we did.

2011 started out with a bang but ended with more of a fizzle. We finished up Dave Ramsey’s babystep #3 (a 6 month emergency fund) at the end of 2010 and jumped into babystep #4 (15% of gross pay into retirement) at the beginning of 2011. We were banging on that goal pretty hard until July hit and my car broke down in the mountains of North Carolina. We had to pay for the transport of my car back to Georgia and the repairs on my car from the emergency fund. It was nice to have the money to be able to take care of the problem but it meant that we had to cut back retirement savings in order to replace the money in the emergency fund. I guess doing that took some of the wind out of our sails. This is the first large set back we have had while following the Dave Ramsey plan. But, had we not started his plan 3 years ago, we would not have had the money in the bank to cover the expenses that we incurred when the minivan broke down. We finished the year with a completed emergency fund but retirement still at 6% instead of the 15% we had hoped to achieve.

So, what does 2012 bring our way? I am not exactly sure yet. John and I have a “date” to finish up our goals and the 2012 budget later this week. It will most likely be an intense several hour planning pow-wow that will leave us both exhausted. We are both hopeful that by the end of it, we will be headed in the same direction and working toward the same end. Some of the goals that I hope to achieve by the end of this new year are to begin putting away 15% of our gross pay in retirement (combination of 401k and Roth IRA) and saving $5000 toward a new used car to replace my van when it finally does give up the ghost. I would also like to take the family on some kind of vacation (Brittany is praying for New York City) and put at least $2000 in the kids college accounts. These are pretty ambitious financial goals for us as a family this year but I believe that you either go big or go home.

The path to achieve these goals is lined with the word “no” during 2012. We said “no” to getting cable (even though the kids asked Santa for it) and “no” to buying another car until we have more in savings. We will also be saying “no” to more entertainment and dining out invitations (sorry, friends) so that we can try to make our dreams a reality. I pledge to use the year of “no” to be able to say “yes” to more quality family time, more time with friends and more inventive ways to save money in our everyday living expenses.

So, join me in welcoming in the New Year with a list of goals and a fresh budget. Maybe this will be your year to hit all your financial goals but you won’t know unless you set some. Good luck!

 

Chocolate Chip Cookies – Almost Homemade…

Life isn’t all sunshine and rainbows and today’s cookie is a reflection of that. I had planned out a recipe for rolled our sugar cookies with cute little candy and icing accents but that is not quite what happened today. Being a parent makes you realize that sometimes plan change and that is what happened when my youngest woke up sick at 5am. So, here is today’s cookie….

There are times when you just have to pull out the old standby and go with a pre-made cookie dough. This was bought from a neighbor’s daughter who was selling it to support the high school band. I am officially letting go of the guilt of not making homemade cookies today and embracing the fact that these are delicious cookies and I helped a future musician. Merry Christmas one and all!

Peppermint Melt-away Cookies…

Only 3 days until Christmas! I hope all your shopping, wrapping and other Christmasy work is done and that you are finally enjoying some yuletide spirit with your family and friends. Today’s cookie is a peppermint cookie for people who do not like peppermint. I say that because you can control the amount of peppermint flavor that the cookie has and for me, that is perfect. I am one of those who do not care that much for peppermint. I cut down the peppermint candy in these cookies by half or more. The cookie is delicate and soft and if you crush the peppermint small enough, they just add a slight crunch. But, if you love peppermint, then add the full cup and leave the chunks bigger. Whatever suits your taste, we are here to please!

These make very pretty cookie gifts since the peppermint melts slightly and gives the cookie a glittery appearance.

Peppermint Melt-away Cookies

Ingredients:

1 (8 oz) package cream cheese, softened
1/2 cup butter (1 stick), softened
1 cup starlight mints or candy canes, crushed
1 large egg
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract (if you really love mint, you could sub peppermint extract)
1 box white cake mix, divided
1 cup white chocolate morsels

Directions:

Mix softened cream cheese, softened butter, egg, vanilla and one-half of the cake mix with an electric mixer 1-2 minutes, until thoroughly blended. Stir in remaining half of cake mix, morsels, and 1/2 cup crushed peppermints until blended. Place remaining crushed mints in a separate bowl.

Shape dough into 1″ balls and press tops of dough into mints (I just sprinkle the mints onto the balls). Place on greased baking sheets or silpats, mint side up and 2″ apart.

Bake 10-12 minutes or until lightly browned and center is barely set. Let stand 3-4 minutes, then transfer to wire racks to cool.

Buckeyes…

I love peanut butter and chocolate and these cute little balls deliver a taste explosion on both. This is the week for easy cookies since we are just days away from Christmas and time is getting short to get everything done. Good thing these are simple cookies, they are so yummy that they are gone quick, so you will probably need to make them more than once. Enjoy!

Buckeyes

Ingredients:

1 1/2 cups peanut butter
1 cup butter, softened
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
6 cups confectioners’ sugar
4 cups semisweet chocolate chips
Directions:

In a large bowl, mix together the peanut butter, butter, vanilla, and confectioner’s sugar. The dough will look dry. Roll into 1 inch balls and place on a waxed paper-lined cookie sheet. You will need to work the dough with your hands to get it to shape into a ball but don’t fret, it will come together.

Press a toothpick into the top of each ball (to be used later as the handle for dipping) and chill in the freezer until firm, about 30 minutes.

Melt chocolate chips in a double boiler, microwave or crockpot at low temperature. Stir frequently until smooth.

Dip frozen peanut butter balls into chocolate holding onto the toothpick. Leave a small portion of peanut butter showing at the top to make them look like Buckeyes.  Put back on the cookie sheet and refrigerate until serving.

Haystacks…

I first heard of these cookies from my Aunt Rachel. She is 5 years younger than me, has a daughter 5 weeks older than mine and lives about 5 miles from my grandmother (her mother-in-law) – wow, that is a lot of fives! And best of all, she is the sweetest person you will ever meet. She is the kind of person who makes everyone feel liked and included. She told me about these cookies a few years ago (maybe 5??) and they are easy to make and a definite kid pleaser. I had a half can of chinese noodles hanging out in my pantry so this seemed like a wonderful way to use them. Since Haystacks are not a typical Christmas cookie, I churched them up with some red and green M&Ms and left out the nuts (the above mentioned daughter does not like nuts). If you have 5 minutes and you aren’t doing anything, give these cookies a try – they are well worth it.

Haystacks

Ingredients

  • 3 cups butterscotch chips
  • 1 (5 ounce) can chow mein noodles
  • 1 cup peanuts

Directions

  1. In a medium saucepan, melt butterscotch chips over low heat, stirring constantly. Stir in chow mein noodles and peanuts.
  2. Drop by teaspoonfuls onto foil. Let stand until cool.


Chewy Sugar Cookies…

These are not the type of sugar cookie that you cut into shapes like reindeers or Santa. I will be making those kinds of cookies closer to Christmas Eve so we will have them for Santa. These cookies are soft and chewy and buttery delicious. You can roll them in plain sugar, colored sugar or cover them in icing. They freeze well as cookie dough balls but wait to roll them in sugar until you are ready to bake them. This is one of our family favorites and I am sure it will be one of your favorites too!

Chewy Sugar Cookies

Ingredients

  • 2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 cup softened butter
  • 1 1/2 cups white sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 tablespoons milk
  • Sprinkles or colored sugar, for decorating

Directions

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.

In a small bowl, stir together flour, baking soda, and baking powder. Set aside.

In a large bowl, cream together butter and sugar until smooth. Beat in the egg and vanilla. Gradually blend in dry ingredients. Add enough of the milk to moisten the dough and make it soft, not wet.

Roll rounded teaspoons of dough into balls and roll in plain or colored sugar. Place on a parchment lined cookie sheet or Silpat. No need to flatten, they do that on their own.

Bake for 8 to 10 minutes or until slightly golden. Let stand for 2 minutes before removing to cool on a rack.

Red Velvet Cake Balls…

Nothing says Christmas like cake balls. These are messy to make but if you are like me and have a messy kid in your house, this is the perfect recipe to get their help with….

These are not difficult to make and have just a few ingredients but there are multiple steps involved. If you need step-by-step directions, see this post I did last year “Cake Ball Tutorial”. Yes, that is the same kid only a year ago. Wow! I didn’t realize how much she has grown in just a year!!

And beware that as soon as you begin making them, every kid on your street will find their way to your kitchen and want to eat one. There is just something about kids and balls that has a magnetic draw. Do not attempt to stop it, you might get hurt.

These also make great gifts and can be made ahead since they go directly into the freezer. Enjoy!

Cake Balls
1 box cake mix (cook as directed on box for 13 X 9 cake)
1 can frosting (16 oz.)
1 package chocolate chips (regular or white chocolate)
wax paper or silpat

1. After cake is cooked and cooled completely, crumble into large bowl.
2. Mix thoroughly with 1 can frosting. (It may be easier to use fingers to mix together, but be warned it will get messy.)
3. Using a cookie scoop, roll mixture into quarter size balls and lay on cookie sheet.
4. Chill for several hours or you can speed this up by putting in the freezer
5. Melt chocolate in microwave per directions on package or use the lil’ crockpot.
6. Roll balls in chocolate and lay on wax paper or silpat until firm. (Use a spoon to dip and roll in chocolate and then tap off extra.)

 

 

Coconut Macaroons…

 

These are a delightfully easy cookie to make. And if you are on a budget, this is a great cookie for you. There are very few ingredients and most of them are on sale at the time of year (hint: Publix has the sweetened condensed milk BOGO right now). They are also quick so if you need a cookie in a hurry, this is a great one to whip up. I like them dunked in chocolate and John likes them blonde, but either way they are delicious.

Coconut Macaroons

Ingredients

  • 2/3 cup all-purpose flour
  • 5 1/2 cups flaked coconut (14 oz bag)
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 (14 ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
  • 1 teaspoons vanilla extract

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Line cookie sheets with parchment paper or silpat.
  2. In a large bowl, stir together the flour, coconut and salt. Stir in the sweetened condensed milk and vanilla, using your hands if needed, until well blended. Use an ice cream scoop to drop dough onto the prepared cookie sheets. Cookies should be about golf ball size.
  3. Bake for 12 to 15 minutes in the preheated oven, until coconut is toasted. Drizzle with chocolate, if desired.

Linzer Cookies…

I first tried this German Christmas cookie a few years ago when a friend of our made them for us for Christmas. She was originally from Germany but had lived in America for many years. She made these cookies by the dozens each year for friends and family and even sold some of them on the side. These are a very rich buttery cookie so one or two will satisfy your sweet tooth. I typically fill them with my homemade black raspberry jam but you can use any jam that you like. I even fill some of them with Nutella but as much as I love Nutella, I still think the traditional jam filled cookies are the tastiest.

If you are freezing them, go ahead and fill them with jam and freeze them completed. You can just take out as many as you need and let them come to room temperature before serving or if you are like me, just eat them cold from the freezer!

Linzer Cookies

Makes about 20 – 2 inch (5 cm) sandwiched cookies.

Ingredients:

• 1 cup pecans, toasted & ground (hazelnuts or almonds can also be used)
• 2 cups all purpose flour
• 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
• 1/4 teaspoon salt
• 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
• 2/3 cup granulated white sugar, divided
• 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
• 2 large egg yolks
• Zest of 1 lemon
• Confectioners’ (Icing or Powdered) Sugar for dusting
• 1/2 cup seedless Berry Preserves or Jam (I prefer Black Raspberry that I make myself)

Directions:

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F (177 degrees C) and place rack in the center of the oven. Toast the almonds (or pecans) on a baking sheet for about 8-10 minutes (or until lightly browned and fragrant). Once the nuts have cooled, place in a food processor and process with 1/4 cup the sugar from the recipe until finely ground. Set aside.

2. In a separate bowl, whisk or sift together the flour, cinnamon, and salt. Set aside.

3. In the bowl of your electric mixer, cream the butter and remaining sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in the vanilla extract, egg yolks, and lemon zest. Beat in the ground nuts. Add the flour mixture beating just until incorporated. Divide the dough in half and shape into two rectangles about 1/2 inch thick. Wrap the two rectangles of dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate until firm (at least one hour and up to several days).

4. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F and place rack in center of oven. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper and set aside.

5. Remove one rectangle of dough from the refrigerator. On a lightly floured surface roll out the dough until it is about 1/4 inch thick. Using a 2 to 3 inch cookie cutter cut out the dough. Place the cookies about 1 inch apart on the prepared baking sheet. Use a smaller cookie cutter to cut out the centers of half of the cookies on the baking sheet. (You will be sandwiching two cookies together and there will be a small ‘window or cut out’ in the top cookie so you can see the jam underneath.)

6. Re-roll any scraps and cut out the cookies. Remove the other half of the dough from the refrigerator and roll and cut out the rest of the cookies. Bake the cookies for 12-14 minutes or until they are very lightly browned. Remove from oven and place on a wire rack to cool.

7. While the cookies are cooling place the raspberry jam in a small saucepan and heat gently until it has thickened slightly. Strain if there are any lumps in the jam. Let cool.

8. To Assemble Cookies: Place the cookies with the cut-outs on a wire rack and lightly dust the tops with the confectioners’ sugar.

9. On the bottom surface of the full cookie (top of cookie will face out) spread with about a 1/4 – 1/2 teaspoon of jam. Place the cut-out cookie on top and gently sandwich them together, making sure not to smug the confectioners’ sugar.

Note: You can store the unassembled cookies in the refrigerator for several days in an airtight container. It is best, though, to assemble the cookies the same day as serving in order to keep the cookies crisp.