Celebrating Independence Day with Chocolate Chip Cookie Sandwiches

The 4th of July is right around the corner, which means it’s time to pull out your stars and stripes, do some grilling, spend time with friends and family, set off fireworks, and be grateful for the many freedoms we have. Many people spend the 4th of July outside- at parades, picnics, parties, camping- and I have the perfect dessert for any 4th of July celebration: chocolate chip cookie sandwiches!

Why do I like these chocolate chip cookie sandwiches for 4th of July? Let’s count the reasons:

  1. They’re simple
  2. They make a big statement in a small package
  3. They’re easy to make
  4. They’re a big crowdpleaser
  5. You can decorate them any way you want to make them your own
  6. You can do most of the work ahead of time
  7. They’re portable
  8. They hold up well in the heat
  9. They’re easy to eat on the move
  10. You can change up the flavors for something new and exciting or stick with the classic

The list could keep going but you get the point!

So how do you make these lovely little sandwiches? First, make chocolate chip cookies. You can use pre-made dough from the store (see reviews here) or you can make your own (need a recipe? Check out mine here). I personally like to make these in miniature so they’re super easy to grab and snack while you’re on the move. To do this, just make each cookie a little smaller than you normally would, and check them a minute or two earlier while they’re in the oven- smaller cookies usually cook a bit faster than bigger ones.

While the cookies are cooling, either make your own frosting or dump a can of store frosting into a bowl. If you want, play up the frosting a little. You can do this by coloring it red or blue, mixing in star sprinkles, or anything else you can think of to make it fun and festive. I do recommend using a slightly stiffer frosting than you normally do for basic cake frosting because you want it to stay put on the cookies and not slide off in the heat. If your frosting seems a little too wet, you can add a small amount (about ¼ cup at a time) of powdered sugar to thicken it to the desired consistency.

Once the cookies are cool, flip half of them over so the bottoms are facing up. Then, spread a healthy dollop of frosting on each one and cover it with another cookie facing right side up. Then you can roll the sides of the cookie in sprinkles if you want to up the wow factor a little

Have some fun with these little bites of awesomeness at your 4th of July celebration this year, and don’t forget to show off your delicious creations!

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Celebrating Memorial Day

Memorial Day is often considered the official start of summer. Most people are off work, it’s warm and (hopefully) sunny, and barbeques and other outdoor activities are the place to be. But Memorial Day isn’t really about these things and too often I think the meaning gets lost in all of the fun. I’d like to take this opportunity to share a little of the history of Memorial Day and ways to honor those who died for our freedom.

Memorial Day originated after the Civil War in 1866 in the South and in 1868 in the North to honor the soldiers who lost their lives during the war. The North and South kept separate holidays until after World War I, when the holiday became an opportunity to honor all Americans who gave their lives during any war, rather than just focusing on the Civil War. Memorial Day was officially designated as a federal holiday held on the last Monday in May in 1971.

Since its inception, Memorial Day has been commemorated in a number of ways. One of the oldest traditions is to decorate the graves of soldiers. This tradition harkens back to the period after the Civil War and continues today. Poppies are often used as decoration around Memorial Day as a symbol of remembrance. This was inspired by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae’s poem In Flanders Fields, which he wrote during World War I and inspired a poem in response by Moina Michael, who wore and sold poppies to benefit servicemen in need. Since 2000, the National Moment of Remembrance has been held at 3 pm on Memorial Day, which is a time to stop and remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice.

There are also a number of concerts, parades, and sporting events held on or around Memorial Day, including golf tournaments, NASCAR races, and the Indianapolis 500. Then there are the barbeques. And the desserts that must accompany any good barbeque. And wine. Basically, there are plenty of options to have a good time and gorge yourself.

Desserts at a Memorial Day party need to be able to handle the heat, since there’s a decent chance they’ll be outside a good part of the day. I really don’t recommend having a cake, unless it is kept in the shade and there aren’t a ton of intricate buttercream decorations. Why? Frosting made with butter melts in the heat. Ice cream isn’t a great idea, either, unless you have a freezer nearby. I really love to do fruit desserts around Memorial Day because so many delicious fruits are in season at that time. It’s easy to do a simple, light dessert that tastes great with fresh fruit and whipped cream, whether it’s by itself or in a pie or tart shell.

Wine options abound at Memorial Day celebrations as well. I love a nice, cold white like pinot grigio or Semillon. However, you can also do a light red if you prefer, like a Lambrusco or gamay.

No matter how you choose to celebrate Memorial Day, please take a moment to honor those who gave their lives for our freedom. Without their bravery and sacrifice, we wouldn’t have the opportunity to celebrate with barbeques, dessert, and wine.

In Flanders Fields
By John McCrae, May 1915

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

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Easy Desserts for Graduation Parties

It may be hard to believe, but graduation season is upon us. This super busy, often emotional time of year is full of award ceremonies, parties, goodbyes, and planning for the future. I remember when I graduated from high school and college, I was both relieved that the tests, homework, and classes were over but I also felt very nostalgic about my time in school and didn’t want it to end. My mom also cried a lot.

Everyone associated with a graduate is busy- the parents, siblings, friends, and teachers are all trying to celebrate their success and deal with their emotions related to the graduate moving to the next stage in their lives. Any good graduation party needs dessert, but it’s hard to make a dessert while planning and hosting a party. Luckily, I have rounded up some great ideas for a graduation party dessert that require minimal work during the party and can be as simple or as extravagant as you choose to make them.

Make Your Own Sundae Bar
How cool is this? To put it together, you set out a variety of ice cream, toppings, and cones, and let the guests go to town. Your only work during the party is setting out the ice cream- everything else can be laid out in advance.

   

Candy Bar
I love candy bars. Why? Unlimited candy, of course. You can either set it up so guests can graze throughout the party or set out bags so everyone can fill one on their way out. You can also add in some miniature desserts, like mini cupcakes, cake pops, or truffles if you want a little more than candy.

Cupcake Bar
Who doesn’t love cupcakes? If you want to give guests a fun activity during the party, you can have them decorate their own cupcakes. Even adults will have fun trying to outdo each other with their creativity. If there are other activities going on, you can have a variety of cupcake flavors available for guests to choose from at their leisure, whether you made them yourself or picked them up from a bakery. Check out my cupcake post for some recommendations around Houston.

Chocolate Fountain
Chocolate fountains are amazing and so easy to manage during a party. Just lay out a variety of dippers, like marshmallows, fruit, and pretzels, and let your guests go to town. Your only job is to ensure the chocolate doesn’t run out. I will warn you, clean up can be a bit challenging.

Donut Bar
Donut towers and bars have been a thing for awhile now and are super awesome. It doesn’t matter what time of day it is, a pile of donuts will make any guests’ eyes gleam.

Have you had any great graduation desserts? Let us know your picks for an easy, hands-off dessert!

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Peanut Butter Bon Bons- The Perfect Mother’s Day Treat

Mother’s Day is almost upon us and you know what that means- it’s time to spoil our wonderful moms who have put up with us our whole lives. They held us when we cried, patched us up when we fell, celebrated our victories, and gave us the foundation to go out and achieve great things. While Mother’s Day may seem like just another Hallmark holiday to some, I think it’s a great opportunity to acknowledge just how important a role mothers play in our lives and thank them for always being there. I know I was not the easiest child (did anyone else have a thing for flinging their shoes off their feet when they walked in the door?), so I want to give a special thank you to my mom for always encouraging me to follow my dreams, giving me the space and support to learn who I am and what I want to do with my life, teaching me to be open to new ideas, not killing me when I decided I could only wear one skirt every day for weeks on end in Kindergarten, and for picking me up after all those many, many late night high school debate tournaments.

There are plenty of great ways to celebrate your mother, from flowers to a day off to a special dinner out. But I think the best way is to make her a really special dessert, like the Peanut Butter Bon Bons in the Junior League of the Woodlands’ Texas Tables cookbook. This is a fantastic cookbook with tons of great recipes (and beautiful enough to be a Mother’s Day gift on its own!), and the bon bons are one of the most popular recipes in the book. They’re a delightfully rich, sweet ball of chocolate-covered peanut butter goodness, and the perfect treat to say “Thanks, Mom.”

I won’t lie to you- these bon bons are not terribly difficult, but they are somewhat time consuming. There are essentially two parts to making them- making the peanut butter balls, and dipping them in chocolate. After each of those steps, you chill them for two hours to harden the peanut butter and let the chocolate set. It’s nice having that time in between so you aren’t slaving over the stove for hours on end. I have a friend who even left hers in the fridge overnight because she didn’t have time to dip them right away. So you can totally work making these into your schedule, even though the overall time is a little more than you might normally expect.

Now, I can’t give you the full recipe- you have to buy the book for that- but I do have some tips to ensure these come out perfectly every time. And I should know- I made 9 batches of these for the Junior League of the Woodlands’ Holiday Market last year, so I have had lots of practice!

The first step is to assemble your ingredients and let your margarine soften a bit. You don’t want it warm, because that will make the dough too soft and sticky to form the balls easily, but you do need it soft enough to mix with the peanut butter. I usually leave my margarine on the counter for 15-20 minutes before I start mixing.

Next, you mix the margarine and peanut butter together, then add powdered sugar. When measuring the peanut butter, make sure that you get all of it out of the measuring cup, otherwise your proportions will be off. If you have too much powdered sugar compared to the peanut butter, the dough may end up tough and hard to work with, not to mention not great to eat. I also like to use a regular peanut butter with some salt added as opposed to just ground peanut butter. I think this tiny hint of salt helps cut the sweetness just enough that it’s not overwhelming.

Try to get your peanut butter balls as round and uniform in size as possible, but don’t sweat if they’re not perfect. That gives them character, right?

Once you have your dough shaped and on a pan (cookie sheets work great), pop the pan in the fridge and go relax. The reason the dough needs to chill is because it is going into a pan of hot chocolate and paraffin, and the peanut butter will get too gooey and lose its shape if it’s not nice and cold.

Melting the chocolate and paraffin takes several minutes and it’s really important not to get distracted here. You can step away for a minute or two at a time while it’s melting, but don’t go far because you do need to stir the chocolate regularly to ensure it melts evenly and doesn’t burn. And don’t worry if you don’t have a double boiler. You can use a mixing bowl on top of a pan of water to achieve the same effect- just make sure the water does not touch the bottom of the bowl. It may be tempting to let a few tiny pieces go unmelted, but DON’T! The first time I made these, I got impatient and decided those few tiny bits wouldn’t hurt anything and I wound up with lumps of chocolate on half my bon bons. They still tasted good but it was not the most appealing thing in the world. So be patient and make sure all the chocolate is fully melted before dipping your first bon bon. You need to work quickly once you start dipping the bon bons because the peanut butter warms quickly. I actually prefer to put about half the batch on a plate to dip at one time so they don’t warm up too much.

Once you have everything dipped, you are done! Just pop the bon bons back in the fridge for a couple hours to let the chocolate set, and then you can serve them, eat them, or even freeze them. One of the great things about this recipe is that the bon bons freeze well, so you can make them ahead of time and pull them out when ready to serve. Just leave them on the counter to come to room temperature.

What’s your favorite way to make your mom feel special?

If you would like to purchase a Texas Tables cookbook, you can do so directly from the Junior League of the Woodlands website: https://www.jlthewoodlands.org/texas_tables/. Information on the Holiday Market is available here: https://www.jlthewoodlands.org/holiday-market/. Proceeds from the sale of the cookbooks and Holiday Market tickets go directly back into the community to support our wonderful programs. More information on the work of the Junior League of the Woodlands is available here: https://www.jlthewoodlands.org/.

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How to Host THE BEST Wine Tasting Party

What is the absolute best party to have if you want to get old and new friends together, encourage them to mingle, and ensure they have a great time? Wine tasting. There is something about wine tasting that just naturally generates conversation. Everyone wants to talk about what they’re tasting, if they like it, and tell stories about other wines they’ve tried. Even if you somehow end up with terrible wine, everyone has a great time talking about it! Another wonderful thing about this type of party is that it can be as complicated, formal, simple, or informal as you want. The key is to think about the vibe of the party you want to have and who you’re inviting.

Wine tasting parties generally fall into 3 categories- a formal pairing, a blind tasting, or an informal event where you have lots of wine and food and everyone can mix and mingle as they choose. A formal pairing is where food and wine is chosen so as to create a pleasing experience on the palate. You want pairings with flavors and textures that will enhance or balance each other. A way to make this fun is to provide a tasting menu to guests with the different flavors they will note in the wine and what aspects of the wine the food was chosen to enhance or balance. You can also provide this on tasting cards next to the pairings if you want your guests moving around.

A blind tasting is one where you have all the wine labels covered and guests have to figure out which wine varietal they are drinking. If you have very experienced tasters, you can have them do this completely unassisted, but if you have less experienced tasters you may want to provide notes on how to taste (swirl, sniff, sip) and which varietals they have to choose from. You may even include some notes on the characteristics of each.

Finally, an informal wine tasting is one where you set out wines, foods, and desserts and let your guests decide what to eat and drink. This is great for a more casual setting where you want guests to mix and mingle with minimal structure.

A friend of mine is hosting a wine tasting in a couple weeks that is actually a combination of these and I think it’s going to be a lot of fun. First, she’s going to have a blind tasting of some of her favorite wines to see if her guests can choose the correct varietal, with a prize for whoever gets the most correct. Then she’s going to have a more informal set up where foods and wines are generally paired together (reds with a few food options in one area, whites in another) but the guests will be able to choose what to eat and drink together. This is a great way to provide some structure to your guests but still allow the party to flow in a relaxed manner.

One decision you need to make is if you are going to provide all of the food and wine or if you want to make it a potluck. Again, you have a lot of options here. If you provide everything, it gives you more control over the pairings and makes set up a little easier for a blind tasting because you won’t be trying to cover wine labels while your guests arrive. If you opt for a potluck style, either you can provide the wine and have your guests bring food, or you can have your guests bring their favorite food and wine pairing. Both of these are fun ways to let your guests participate a little more and showcase a favorite recipe or bottle of wine. Any of these options allows you to focus on a theme if you choose- wines from a specific country or region, a particular grape from different countries, or an around the world style with each wine from a different place. Just make sure to let your guests know your theme so they can get excited about the theme.

To help generate conversation, you may want to consider having a game or competition for the guests. You can offer a prize (or bragging rights) to the guest who gets the most varietals correct in a blind tasting, you can see if they can tell the difference between more or less expensive wines, rank the wines from best to worst on a scorecard, or even guess the number of corks in a bowl. The options are really endless.

Here are a few resources for party planning supplies in case you need anything to make your party a huge success (Full disclosure: If you click on a link in this section of items I love and make a purchase, I may receive a commission):

Wine Delivery-

Drizly- If you live in one of their service areas and don’t have time to pick up your wine, Drizly can deliver it to you. While there is something special about browsing for the perfect wine, let’s face it- that isn’t always practical.

Wine Insiders- I’m a big fan of the wines I’ve received from Wine Insiders and love that I only receive wine when I place an order, rather than getting a case every few months whether I need it or not. They do have wine clubs but you’re not required to join one to get the benefits.

Wine glasses- You definitely need to have plenty of glasses for your guests. Amazon has a ton of options for wine glasses. I really like this set from Libbey because it’s so versatile. If you’re not doing a really technical tasting, a standard glass is perfectly fine instead of a specific style for each wine.

Games- Amazon also has a ton of kits to help you put together a blind tasting and to learn more about wine tasting. I love this set because it has everything you need for a blind tasting.

Desserts- Send me a message and I will help you put together a great selection of desserts for your party! If you’re in the Houston area I can either walk you through making the desserts or make them for you. If you’re not, I can put together the perfect menu for your party!

No matter which option you choose, a wine tasting is a great way to have fun and try some new wines. Who knows? Maybe you’ll find your new favorite!

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Wine and Chocolate Trail Recap

The Bluebonnet Wine Trail hosts a wine and chocolate trail every February at the seven member wineries. I had the pleasure of going this year and trying lots of delicious wines and chocolate desserts. Each winery put their own spin on the theme and came up with some delicious results. My friend Mary went with me, which was really great because she’s a wine fan with pretty different tastes from me. It was fun to hear her take on the wines and how she tasted things differently than I did. We challenged ourselves to do the entire trail in one day. It’s exhausting but it can be done if you stick to a schedule. Last year I did the wine and cheese trail with the boyfriend and we took two days for it, which gave us plenty of time to relax at each stop and see some things on the side. No matter how you do the trail, just make sure that you’re safe and have a designated driver.

Here are some of the highlights at each stop:

Our first stop was Texas Star Winery. It wasn’t on the trail when I did it last year, so I was pretty excited to see it. The first wine was the Sunset Red, which they described as a reverse chianti. I really enjoyed it- it was smooth and easy to drink but robust. The second wine was a mandarin orange that they paired with a chocolate mousse. There’s a touch of cocoa in the wine, which was drawn out some by the mousse. I cheated and had a little mousse with the Sunset Red as well, which paired really well together.

Our next stop was Saddlehorn Winery, where we had a nice sweet Riesling and the Barn Red, which is a blend of cabernet, Syrah, and zinfandel. The dessert was a s’mores pizza, which was really good with the Riesling. I thought the marshmallows made it a little too sweet with the Barn Red, but I had it with a piece of graham cracker and chocolate from the pizza and that was really good.

Next up was Pleasant Hill, where we had a sangiovese and a port paired with a brownie, strawberry, and blackberry. I’m not a huge fan of port, but discovered something exciting while we were there- port and strawberries pair really well together! I was able to really enjoy the port while eating the strawberry, which just goes to show you how much food and wine can affect each other!

Next was the longish drive to Messina Hof (and lunch on the road), where we had a moscato, their barrel reserve port, and chocolate fondue with lady fingers and pretzels. I was surprisingly pleased with the port. As I said before, I’m not a huge fan, but it didn’t have the raisiny flavor like many others I’ve had, so I actually liked it! Mary and I agreed it was one of the more drinkable ports we’ve had.

Next, we made the short drive to Peach Creek Vineyards. They served a zinfandel and a semi-dry zin with a chocolate bundt cake with cherries and cayenne. Since we had been eating chocolate all day, I loved that it wasn’t too sweet but still nice and chocolatey. I love chocolate, but a full day of it can apparently get a little tiring. The cayenne in the bundt cake was the perfect counter to the sweet chocolate.

Bernhardt winery came next and we had their Sarah, which is a meritage blend aged in American and French oaks. The second wine was their port reserve. They served these with a chocolate orange-infused brownie with a salted caramel topping. This dessert had a lot going on and truly was decadent.

Cork This! was our last stop. We had cabernet franc for our first wine, which I really liked, and then they offered a chocolate port for the second but gave us a choice of having a different wine. We were super grateful for the option because we were all chocolated out at that point. Mary had a zinfandel and I had a cabernet sauvignon that we both enjoyed. The dessert was a rich chocolate cobbler with vanilla ice cream that was nice and decadent.

If you couldn’t make the wine trail this year, I highly recommend it as a fun girls’ outing or a romantic weekend out next year. If you just can’t wait to try some great wines, the wine and cheese trail is in March and April, right at the height of bluebonnet season.

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