Category Archives: Parties, Holidays, and Holiday Parties

Themes, menu plans, recipes, ideas, goings-on

Metaphors of Motherhood

Shel Silverstein’s, “The Giving Tree” is the ultimate metaphor for the loving sacrifices of motherhood. I never understood the incredible balancing act carried on by mothers every single day until I became one myself.

It’s funny, I’ve been a mother for over eight and a half years, and I still don’t really think of Mother’s Day as a holiday for me. I still think of my mom on Mother’s Day.

Motherhood is nothing if not sentimental. These spiky red blooming trees remind me of my mom’s mom because there was one near her home. As a child they seemed so exotic, I had never seen one anywhere else. This one grows right outside my office, so my grandma says hi to me every day.

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Preparing to greet me…

To celebrate all of us moms, this is my meditation on the wonders of motherhood.

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Wonder

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Play is both learning and learned. Children remind us to play.

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It smells like chocolate.

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Food is love.

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Art is everywhere, as it should be.

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We are all a little nuts, and that’s okay.

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Tears are happy, sad, glad, and mad.

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A little patience goes a long way.

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Mothers are always behind

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fading into the background.

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Stolen moments are sweet too, and make better mothers.

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Gratitude is awe.

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There really is such a thing as buried treasure.

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For all mothers everywhere, Happy Mother’s Day.

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Thanksgiving Improv

This post may seem a bit after the fact seeing as Thanksgiving is over. In my defense, it involves leftovers, super quick roasted nuts perfect for any occasion, and an epiphany: Jazz and Thanksgiving are soul mates.

Jazz by nature is so fluid it resists definition, but I tried anyway. Jazz could be defined as two conflicting cultures finding beauty in each other’s musical traditions, an embrace that results in music new, surprising, and glorious.

Thanksgiving could be defined as two conflicting cultures brought together by their mutual celebration of the harvest bounty (so the story goes).

Solidly rooted North American traditions, both are the result of two cultures in direct competition finding a common ground through art. Through mingling, new culinary and musical legacies were born.

I’m not sure exactly why jazz came into play. I wanted to write about Thanksgiving, but have been singing mostly blues notes as of late. There is so much to be thankful for, but instead of the usual lilting melody, this restless body is composing a cacophony that doesn’t match the love in my life.

Maybe I need to reinterpret my time signature. Just because it is dark when I wake, and dark when I leave work doesn’t mean there is less leisure time. Dark spaces feel smaller, but that’s what flash lights and desk lamps are for.

There is one thing that usually makes me feel better. In the jazz lexicon it would be called improvisation through syncopation; being open to new melodies (aka a dish) by using an unexpected deviation (combining ingredients not usually combined).

I set out on a culinary mission last weekend with that very thought in mind. Winter squash and nuts were the riff (repeated refrain). My plan was to make Maple Chipotle Nuts, and my very first homemade pumpkin pie. I began by making the nuts, and roasting and pureeing a sugar pumpkin. As I set out to make a pie the next day, it seemed only natural to make a Maple Chipotle Pumpkin Pie. The real surprise was my latest creation, an Acorn Squash Pumpkin Pie.

Maple Chipotle Nuts is a recipe I adapted from the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op biweekly ads. I first made them as part of a clean-out-the-freezer project, and have since made them three times in the last week and a half. They are sweet, a little spicy, and seriously addicting.

Maple Chipotle Nuts

1 pound unsalted raw nuts (any mix of pecans, green pumpkin seeds aka pepitas, almonds, walnuts, peanuts)
1 cup maple syrup
¼ cup dark brown sugar
2 teaspoons ground chipotle chili powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground black pepper

1)   Heat oven to 325. Line a rimmed baking sheet with foil.

2)   Mix maple syrup and brown sugar in a small microwave safe bowl. Heat in microwave till sugar is dissolved, about 1 minute. Stir in chipotle powder, salt, and pepper.

3)   Combine nuts and maple syrup mixture. Stir till evenly coated. Spread nuts on lined baking sheet.

4)   Bake 6-7 minutes. Stir, then bake another 6-7 minutes till bubbly. Put nuts in a heat safe bowl and allow to cool, stirring occasionally to break them up.

5)   There’s plenty to snack on, sprinkle on a salad with bleu cheese or feta, and make Maple Chipotle Pumpkin Pie.

Maple Chipotle Pumpkin Pie

Even though it was my first time making a pumpkin pie, that didn’t stop me from tweaking the recipe. (Never does!) I got a small sugar pumpkin in my CSA box a couple of weeks ago, and finally got around to doing something with it. My 8 year old loves pumpkin pie, and begged me to make one. I warned her I was going to put nuts on top, but she could take them off. She allowed me to proceed.

You can use any piecrust you like. I used the “No Fear Pie Crust” from Cook’s Country. (This is a subscription website, but this particular recipe is free! Although it might be just be free during the holidays.) I highly recommend it. I took the recipe title for granted, and let my three year old help me make it with great results. Also, it stayed nice and crisp even though it took us a few days to finish the pie.

The filling I used is another free one from Cook’s Country, their “Pumpkin-Praline Pie.” You can click on the link or just follow my simplified instructions:

In a medium saucepan, combine:

15 oz plain pumpkin puree (canned or homemade)
¾ cup dark brown sugar
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
½ teaspoon ground allspice
pinch ground cloves
½ teaspoon salt

1)   Once all the filling ingredients are in the pan, turn heat to medium high. Stirring frequently, heat till bubbling and thickened, about 4 minutes.

2)   Remove from heat and whisk in 1 cup evaporated milk, 3 eggs and 2 teaspoons vanilla.

To finish the pie:

1)   Pour filling into warm piecrust. (The filling is actually a little too much for a 9” pan. Save the leftovers! I’ve got a great use for it down the screen.)

2)   Bake at 350 till the filling puffs up, and barely jiggles at the center, about 35 minutes.

3)   Top with Maple Chipotle Nuts, then bake another 10 minutes or so until toasty, and you just can’t handle the aroma-torture any longer.

4)   Let cool on a wire rack till set, 2 hours or so.

Next time I make this pie, I plan to kick up the spice by putting a little chipotle powder into the filling.

Acorn Squash Pumpkin Pie

So, you may be wondering where the acorn squash comes in. I’ve had this beautiful Carnival acorn squash on my table as a fall decoration for a few weeks. It’s almost too pretty to eat.

But, when I made the piecrust, I realized I didn’t have any pie weights (because they would get used less often than my children ask for a bath). So, I improvised. I used a foil-lined pie tin with half an acorn squash to weigh down the crust and roast it at the same time. I put the other half face down in another pie pan, and essentially killed two birds with one stone.

But wait, there’s more! Once the acorn squash starts to caramelize, and is tender enough for a fork to pierce easily, flip it over and pour the rest of the pumpkin pie filling in the center. Bake another 10-20 minutes until the filling is set. This would be great in a butternut, or any other squash you like to prepare on the sweeter side.

Back to the Blues:

Maybe I need to take this syncopation thing more seriously. One way of making an unexpected deviation in music is with a rest where a stress is expected. Slowing my tempo makes sense, but seems impossible. Family life means trying to synchronize the rhythms of four people into one composed day, every day. Of course I can stop doing the extras I love (like writing, baking, little things that help me maintain sanity), but I can’t not participate in my family’s song. How do you do it all, or stop trying to do it all?

In jazz, some songs use a call-response format. The lead singer will sing an improvised line or two, and the chorus responds with a refrain. As the lead singer in this scenario calling to you, the chorus, what do you do when you find yourself singing the blues?

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Filed under Cookbooks and other Book Reviews, Culinary Travels, New Recipes, Obsessed with Produce, Parties, Holidays, and Holiday Parties, Techniques

Cat Eye Cookies Just in Time for Halloween

Believe it or not, I’ve had this “cat in the bag” since July.

The idea for “cat eye cookies”came from one of my writerly friends, Dawn Lairamore. (Dawn writes middle grade adventure stories. Her second book, a fun fractured fairytale called Ivy and the Meanstalk, just came out this month. Congratulations Dawn!)

I also have to thank my husband for the cookie concept. I told him I wanted create a cat eye cookie recipe, and he suggested doing a thumbprint cookie. Brilliant! I had recently made jam thumprints from The Everything Kids’ Cookbook. I decided to adapt that recipe by making the dough chocolate with a custard filling instead of jam. The custard filling was inspired by my favorite Black Bottom Cupcakes in the Joy of Cooking. Not only are these cookies fun to make, they are not overly sweet and addictively delicious!

Cat Eye Cookies  

Makes 24-36 cookies (depending on the size of your cookies)

Ingredients:

1 cup butter (2 sticks) softened
½ cup brown sugar
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 & 2/3 cups all-purpose flour
1/3 cup cocoa powder
¼ teaspoon salt
white sugar to coat
About half a bag regular-sized semisweet chocolate chips

Filling:

4 oz cream cheese, softened
3 Tablespoons sugar
1 egg yolk

Directions:

1)   Preheat oven to 350º. Set oven rack in the center slots.

2)   Cream butter and brown sugar. Add egg and vanilla.

3)   In a separate bowl sift flour, cocoa, and salt. Add to wet ingredients. Mix well. Dough will be thick and heavy like play dough.

4)   Refrigerate dough while you make the filling. For filling: Cream the cream cheese and sugar till smooth. Add egg yolk and blend well.

5)   Shape dough into 1” balls. Roll in white sugar, then place 2” apart on an ungreased cookie sheet.

6)   Make a longish thumbprint in each cookie. Pinch the long ends back together and shape into a slanty cat eye.

7)   Put ½ teaspoon filling in each eye socket. For pupils put two chocolate chips, bottoms together, in the center of each filled cookie. (This is one of those rare cases where you may have extra pupils, and it’s perfectly okay to eat them.)

8)   Bake at 350º for 12 minutes. Cool on a wire rack.

9)   Stare back.

10)   Take them into a dark room and see if they glow like real cats’ eyes.

11)   Dig out the gooey pupil and whites with your finger and eat them first.

12)   Place them gently over your spouse’s eye sockets and take creepy pictures.

13)   Or, you can just eat them like a normal person.

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My Top 10 Fall Favorites in Northern California

For anyone who has ever lived on the East coast, fall in California may not seem like much of a fall. Spectacular fireworks displays put on by changing leaves are few and far between. Fall in Sacramento could be seen as just a season of morning debates, “What should I wear today? Is it going to be 90 degrees, or 50?”  Layers by the way, it’s all about layers.

However, there are some really great things about fall in California. I decided to make myself a list as a cheery reminder:

1)   Fall produce (of course)

2)   Rain’s novelty has been restored (however briefly)

3)   Steaming up the kitchen with great, bubbling pots of beans between summer salads


4) Folding warm laundry on cold mornings

5) Trips to Apple Hill!

6)   California’s extended growing season

7)   Visiting the pumpkin patch

8)   The plethora of apple and pumpkin treats

9)   Taking leaf walks – searching for different leaves around our neighborhood to do leaf rubbings

10)  Change. It’s not always easy, but it can be beautiful.

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Marinated Green Bean & Carrot Salad

I love olives, all of them. Kalamata, black, green with piminto hearts. I love pickles, pepperoncini, marinated artichoke hearts, hearts of palm, fresh pickled beets…you get the picture. Anything with a nice, vinegary tang makes me happy. My husband still tells the story, in a slightly horrified voice, of the first time he saw me eat Kalamata olives at 7 a.m. I have nothing to say for myself. This is perfectly normal behavior. Isn’t it?

My Aunt Joann used to make this wonderful thing called Cumin Carrots. It’s simply steamed-till-tender carrots marinated in a fresh, zippy vinaigrette with a healthy overdose of garlic. I often make it in the middle of winter when I’m missing summer veggies. Lemon juice and vinegar go a long way towards brightening my rainy days and my carrots.

All summer long I’ve had this rather explicable urge to pickle fresh green beans. When a lovely bag of beans arrived on my doorstep in my CSA box, I was ready to set off on my latest pickling adventure. For some reason, my Aunt Joann’s Cumin Carrots came to mind. I decided to adapt her recipe by using green beans, cilantro instead of parsley… 

and some fresh jalapenos for a little kick (hi-ya!) It worked beautifully!

Do you see the lion's tear?

Now that I know green beans and carrots are interchangeable in this recipe, I’m tempted to try cauliflower. A little red bell pepper would be good too. Ooh, asparagus! The possibilities are endless!

Marinated Green Bean & Carrot Salad  

Ingredients:

1 lb fresh green beans trimmed, halved, and steamed
½ lb carrots sliced ¼” diagonally and steamed
9 small cloves garlic, minced
1/3 cup olive oil
1/3 cup lemon juice (about 2 lemons)
¼ cup white vinegar
2 ½ teaspoons salt
2 ½ teaspoons paprika
1 teaspoon cumin
1-2 jalapenos, sliced (optional)
½ bunch fresh chopped cilantro or flat leaf parsley, or 1 Tablespoon dried

Directions:

1)   Steam trimmed green beans in the microwave. Put a little water in the bottom of a bowl and cover with a paper towel. Microwave for 2-3 minutes until tender-crisp, stirring after every minute to ensure even cooking. (Remember, they keep cooking after you take them out of the microwave. Let them sit for a few minutes and then check doneness before cooking them longer.)

2)   Do the same with the sliced carrots, but cook only 1-2 minutes.

3)   Whisk together dressing. Stir in cooled veggies and spoon mixture into a jar or other non-reactive lidded container (glass is best). Refrigerate 3-4 hours before serving, better overnight.

This lasts at least a week in the fridge (unless I’m around). It’s perfect for Greek toga parties, potlucks, or as a midmorning snack straight from the jar.

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Carpe Diem! Chocolate Peanut Butter Potato Chip Cupcakes

I know I promised a non-dairy series in my last post. I still intend to deliver on that, but time always marches on revealing new paths. Feel free to protest. This is the United States after all.

Tangential trajectory for today: Cupcakes and Labor Day.

Today we celebrate the economic and social contributions of our workers with a day of rest and parties. It’s also the symbolic end of summer, picnics, and BBQ season. (Of course we Californians barbeque and surf year round.) Ladies stop wearing white, and the new school year begins if it hasn’t already. Fall begins to sneak in cooler mornings, and the skies fire up and darken earlier each evening.

Cupcakes are the perfect dessert for picnics and barbeques. No need to fuss with utensils or plates. You can grab one on your way to the three-legged race. There are many reasons one shouldn’t eat cupcakes, but I can think of one very good reason we should: Carpe diem!

My Aunt Rose has a framed saying on her kitchen wall. At the top in big letters it declares, “Calories don’t count if…” followed by a long list: if it’s a holiday, a birthday, it’s homemade, etc. This definitely influenced my eating philosophy. I try to eat healthy on a day-to-day basis, but I do believe calories shouldn’t count if it’s a special day, and someone cared enough to make something special to share.

Oh look, today is Labor Day, a holiday! And what could be more all American than chocolate cupcakes with peanut butter-potato chip frosting? Not much, really. Cacao beans, peanuts, and potatoes are all native to the Americas.

Back up a sec, did she just say potato chips on cupcakes? Yes, yes I did. You know deep down a salted crunch goes perfectly with peanutty frosting and chocolaty baked goodness. Maybe not so deep down if you’ve ever been intrigued by bacon cupcakes, or salted caramel.

These cupcakes came to life a few months ago when I set out to make a dessert using potato chips. I began by choosing a classic flavor combination known to play nice in both savory and sweet applications: chocolate and peanut butter. My first concept was a chocolate tart topped with peanut butter frosting and crushed kettle-cooked potato chips.

I tweaked my favorite chocolate sheet cake recipe from Cook’s Illustrated’s New Best Recipes by using more chocolate, and Greek yogurt instead of buttermilk. I wanted a denser cake, and it worked pretty well if a bit dry. I baked it in two round cake pans instead of a 9×13 to get a thinner cake. I debated on layering, but didn’t want to be ridiculously excessive so I opted to use only one layer.

Besides experimenting with the cake texture, there were two minor problems. First up, leftovers. Unless you have the perfect-sized group, it is difficult to (physically) eat the whole tart at once. Surprisingly, sogginess was not the issue. However, the chippies staled in less than a day. Cupcakes were the obvious solution; they’re single serving and can be topped with chips just before eating.

The second minor problem, kettle chips aren’t salty enough for a good contrast. I compensated by sprinkling the cake with a little sea salt. This worked well, but I decided to try saltier chips next time.

The second time I tried this dessert was for my in-laws annual 4th of July block party. The cupcakes were nicely portable, and Lay’s potato chips were perfectly salty, but I still wasn’t thrilled with the cake. I tweaked the chocolate sheet cake again using plain yogurt instead of Greek yogurt because it has more moisture, but the chocolaty-ness was deeper in the Greek version. Back to the drawing board!

Today, I tried a different chocolate cake recipe, this time Cook’s Country’s homemade version of a Hostess Chocolate Cream Cupcake. I wanted a dense, not too sweet cake with dark chocolate flavor. In other words, the polar opposite of a cake mix. I was intrigued by this recipe’s technique of “blooming the cocoa” with boiling water. It calls for much less chocolate than my favorite sheet cake, (only 1/3 cup semisweet chocolate & 1/3 cup cocoa powder versus 8 oz semisweet & ¾ cup cocoa powder) but I hoped this blooming method might make up the difference. Also, I liked the sugar ratio of the chocolate cream cupcakes better – ¾ cup sugar to 1 cup flour v. 1 ½ cups sugar to 1 ¼ cups flour.

They were fun and simple to make. Before even tasting, my three year old said, “It smells like chocolate cupcakes! This is the yummiest thing I ever ate.”

“Mommy, it’s kind of gooey.”

As soon as they were out of the oven, she showed me which one was hers.

To top them off, I did a new take on my peanut butter frosting. It was a bit too rich, so I cut the cream cheese, butter, and some of the sugar. I was happy with my new version, much more peanut flavor. Chopped salted peanuts would be a great way to boost the peanut flavor even further.

Peanut Butter Frosting, Take II

Ingredients:
½ cup creamy natural peanut butter (I used Earth Balance)
1 ½ cups powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
5 Tablespoons milk

Directions:
Blend all ingredients in a food processor, just until smooth. This makes enough for about 16-18 cupcakes.

Don’t forget the potato chips! Put a handful of chips in a small bowl and crush them up with your fingers. Press the frosted cupcake into the chips, and fill in the gaps with more chip crumbs. Eat immediately, napkins optional.

Despite what they say, just one is more than satisfactory.

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A Pink and Purple Party, Naturally

For me, planning a party without a theme is like making a sandwich without bread. I wouldn’t know how to enjoy it, and would likely end up with a huge mess on my lap. Themes provide inspiration for menus, decorations, etc. You can probably guess my favorite part-the menu of course!

When my youngest turned two last year we had to cancel her little party because both of my kids came down with strep throat two days before. Ever since then, out of the blue, she would tell me she wants a birthday party, a pink and purple one. And so, a year later, she finally got to have her cake, and eat it too.

The Menu:

The party was set for 3-5 p.m., so I didn’t have to plan a full meal. Pink and purple finger food (healthy-ish, or at least from scratch anyway) for kids? Interesting.

The first thing that came to mind was “pink and purple” fruit with my Aunt Rose’s fruit dip-recipe below. (Now she is a theme party queen! She even orders her bread for little sandwiches to be specially dyed by the bakery to go with her theme colors. Hard core, I love it!) I know marshmallow crème and cream cheese are rather devoid of nutrients, but hey, there’s a little protein in there right? As an added bonus, the kids actually eat more fruit (at a party no less).

Next, a must-have at all my parties is baked brie wrapped in homemade Challah dough.  To add some pink, I wrapped the brie first in applewood smoked ham before the dough. These beauties go into the oven just as guests are scheduled to arrive, and disappear soon after emerging (the brie, not the guests). Again, not the healthiest of appetizers, but well worth the extra pogo-sticking. And I challenge you to compare the ingredient list to that of a Hot Pocket! 

My husband’s big idea for party food, a snack, or meal replacement for that matter, is always chips and salsa. Blue corn tortilla chips are sort of purple I thought, so maybe. Years ago I fell in love with that cabbage stuff served like a salsa with tortilla chips at some Mexican restaurants. Two winters ago, while still mourning the loss of tomato season, I decided to make my own cabbage-based salsa using all my favorite salsa ingredients-garlic, lime juice, and cilantro. It became an instant family favorite-even my picky 7 year old digs in and enjoys the fresh flavor! I’ll eat it straight from the bowl with a fork, and our grilled fish tacos are much cheerier now. The clincher-cabbage comes in a natural, fantastic, in-your-face purple! I won’t bother with the pale green version anymore. Purple cabbage tastes just as good, but is sooo much prettier! (Scroll down to the bottom of my superbowl post for my recipe: cabbage salsa)

Punch and Cake

Pretty in Pink Punch: bathe ½ gallon raspberry sherbet with 2 2-liters of chilled Gingerale till melty, and voila!

If only the cake had been that simple. Well, making the cake was easy-The New Best Recipe cookbook from the editors of Cook’s Illustrated has a basic chocolate sheet cake recipe that turned me away from cake mixes forever. I bolstered the chocolate, and used two round cake pans instead of a 13×9.

I had a little too much fun experimenting with fresh blueberry and strawberry/cherry juice as natural food coloring for my cream cheese frosting. The act of frosting the cakes, however, was quite a challenge. My mother-in-law (esteemed sous chef for the day) can attest to that. Pale pink and purple frosting may be lovely, but chocolate cake is not terribly forgiving of amateur decorators. Chocolate sprinkles to the rescue!

Aunt Rose’s Fruit Dip

Ingredients:
8 oz cream cheese, softened
1 jar marshmallow crème
Fresh seasonal fruit

Directions:

1)   Blend softened cream cheese and marshmallow crème until smooth. Add a few drops of food coloring if white is too boring

2)   Serve in a pretty little bowl surrounded by seasonal fruit.

Baked Brie
Serves: 1 (or 8-12 if you are willing to share)

Ingredients:
1 wedge brie
½ pound Challah dough (from “Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day”), or 1 ½ cans Pillsbury crescent rolls
4 large slices good deli ham (if you want the pink)

Directions:
1)   Preheat oven to 350 for Challah dough, or according to crescent roll directions.

2)   Cut brie in half lengthwise so you have two pie wedges.

3)   Roll out your Challah into a ¼ inch thick rectangle on a lightly floured surface. Or, unroll crescent dough on a clean, flat surface. Press seams firmly together so you have one cohesive rectangular sheet of dough.

4)   Cut the rectangle in half and wrap each wedge of brie. Try to make the dough evenly thick so that it will bake evenly. Press the seams firmly together (so the cheesy goodness doesn’t leak out) and make it relatively smooth. If using Challah, let it rise for at least 20 minutes, up to 40 if you have time.

5)   Bake at least a few inches apart on a rimmed cookie sheet until deep golden brown, 15-18 minutes for crescent rolls, 20-22 minutes for Challah.

6)   Cut into warm gooey slices and pass the plate around with lots of napkins.

Notwithstanding my husband’s next-day trip to urgent care for a freakish pollen in the eye incident (photo withheld for obvious reasons), the party was quite a succes. A pink and purple dream come true.

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