Have you ever started a recipe only to discover that it called for "pumpkin pie spice"?  And there was no such thing in your cupboard?  

You can make your own very easily.  Mix a big batch and fill a jar, or just use the ratios below to put directly in your recipe.  For instance, if your recipe calls for 2 tsp. pumpkin pie spice, use double the amounts below.  No need to stir them together first, either, just drop them in.  If you have cinnamon but not all three of the others, you can leave one of them out and still be fine.  (Just don't leave out the cinnamon!)

Pumpkin Pie Spice Makes 1 teaspoon. 

1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon 
1/4 tsp. ground nutmeg
1/8 tsp. ground ginger
1/8 tsp. ground cloves

Mix ingredients well. 

Bigger batch, for filling a spice jar:  
Makes 1/4 c (4 Tbsp or 12 tsp.)
2 Tbsp. ground cinnamon
1 Tbsp. ground nutmeg
1 1/2 tsp. ground ginger
1 1/2 tsp. ground cloves

photo credit: Jon Sullivan
I'm not quite normal.  (My teenagers are sure to agree.)  We do New Year's Eve a little differently, and it changes a bit from year to year.  It seems that most people love to watch the ball drop on Times Square, or stay up late at parties.  Me?  Not so much.  My idea of starting a new year out well does not involve waking up to a headache and a messy house.
We still celebrate; another year completed is cause to be grateful- and the celebrations always involve food, family, and games with my children.  But my idea of starting a year on the right foot is waking up to a spotless kitchen.  

Yep.  That's how exciting I am. I deep-clean my kitchen- the heart of my home- after the games and food are done.  Anyone who wants to stay up until midnight (if they're not at our church youth dance) is welcome to, if they want to scrub the grooves on cabinet doors with a toothbrush, wipe stray splashes from the ceiling, or dump crumbs out of a drawer.

Think about it, though:  how else better to celebrate than to wrap things up and start the year with a clean slate?  New day, new year, fresh start.  It does wonders for the psyche.

For New Year's Eve food, we eat things that we usually don't buy:  cheese spread in those cute little glass jars (awesome size for juice glasses afterwards, BTW), the 'good' crackers (anything more expensive than saltines), a cheese ball, the bottles of sparkling apple cider the neighbors gave as Christmas presents, Little Smokies, summer sausage, sometimes kiwi fruit or clementines.  We all start eating our gingerbread houses.  And a vegetable tray 'cause we'll be sick if we don't.

Anyway, this Christmas a friend gave us a cheese ball and crackers as a gift.  It was made with green chilies, and was hands-down the best cheese ball EVER.  She shared the recipe; may I recommend it for your New Year's Eve feast?

Recipe is below.

Juliette's Green Chili Cheese Ball

8 oz. cream cheese, softened
1-2 teaspoons beef bouillon granules (or 1-2 bouillon cubes, crushed)*
1-2 Tbsp. water
7 oz. can chopped green chilies (or two 4-oz cans)
16 oz. medium or mild Cheddar, shredded (4 c.)
1 c. chopped pecans or walnuts for coating- or use 1/2 c. chopped parsley or cilantro

Mix cream cheese until smooth. Combine beef broth seasoning and water, then mix this into the cream cheese.  Stir in chilies, then Cheddar.  Shape into one huge ball or 3-4 medium ones.  Roll in chopped nuts.  Wrap well and refrigerate to firm it up.

*The beef bouillon is really important in this.  If you don't have any, you can enhance the flavor instead by adding 1/2 tsp. salt and 1 Tbsp. soy sauce or Worchestershire.
Do you want something simple to give to friends and neighbors?  Here are some quickies; if you have more time you might like Candy Cane Bread, shaped and decorated like a candy cane.  
Recipes for the fudge and the gingerbread syrup are below.

For the jars to pour syrup in, I save jars through the year: spaghetti sauce jars, pickle jars, jelly jars,baby food jars, peanut butter containers (don't use those for anyone with peanut allergies!)...
After Christmas, anything that didn't get used gets put in the recycle bin, and I have cupboard space once again!
Cherry-Almond Fudge

2 c. sugar
1/2 c. milk
7 oz. marshmallow creme (may use 7 oz. marshmallows instead)
12 oz. semisweet chocolate chips
1 tsp. almond extract
1 tsp. cherry flavor  (I used wild cherry, and it was amazing!)
1/4 c. dried cherries or cranberries, finely chopped
1/2 c. almonds, chopped

Line an 8x8 pan with parchment or foil; butter well if using foil.  Set aside.  Combine the sugar and milk in a medium saucepan.  Bring to a boil, stirring often, then boil for 3 minutes.  Pull off the heat, then add marshmallow creme, chocolate chips, almond and cherry extracts, and dried cherries.  Stir until smooth.  Pour into prepared pan, and sprinkle with chopped nuts.  
Refrigerate 1 hour or until firm, then cut into squares.  Store airtight at room temperature.

Makes just over 2 pounds.

Gingerbread Syrup 
(notice this recipe is basically the same as above, only without the marshmallow, and with extra milk to make it pourable)  If you don't have cinnamon chips, use white chocolate chips or butterscotch chips, then add 1-2 Tbsp. ground cinnamon, to taste.

2 c. sugar (can use brown sugar for deeper flavor, or add 1 Tbsp. molasses)
1 c. plus 2 Tbsp. milk
12 oz. cinnamon chips (I used Hershey's brand)
1 tsp. ground ginger OR 1 drop ginger essential oil
1/2 tsp. ground cloves OR 1 toothpick of clove oil
1/8 tsp. salt
1/2 c. pecans, toasted and finely chopped

In a medium saucepan, bring the sugar and milk to a boil, stirring occasionally.  Boil for 1 minute, then remove from heat.  Stir in cinnamon chips, ginger, cloves, salt, and stir until smooth.  Stir in pecans, then pour syrup into jars.  Store in the refrigerator.  Warm before serving.  (If too thick, microwave briefly.)

Makes about 3 1/2 cups.

See here for Part 1- Baking.

The #1 reason people are scared of making gingerbread houses?  I think it's ASSEMBLING the pieces.  Most people use frosting to hold the pieces together.  That's aggravating; the frosting doesn't hold well and the pieces have to be propped up for hours before they'll really bond.  Who has time for that?

Here's what my mom taught us- use Edible Hot Glue- melted sugar.  Caramel, they call it in the cooking world.  Take about 1/2 cup granulated sugar, put it in a heavy saucepan (big enough to dip your gingerbread pieces in) over medium-high heat, and watch as it starts to melt.  (It's actually decomposing, scientists just learned this year!) Do NOT walk away from the pan during this time!!! You'll need to stir a little of the unmelted sugar into the liquid part; keep it moving a bit so it doesn't scorch.   Turn down heat as needed.  If it cooks too much, it turns black and bitter-tasting. 

Once it's completely melted, turn the heat down to low; you want it to stay hot enough to be liquid, but low enough it won't burn. 

Get both pieces ready that you want to bond.  Dip the edge of one into the hot sugar.  Be very, very careful to not get any on yourself- this is way hotter than boiling, though it doesn't look it.  Think hot glue on steroids. 
Put the two pieces together immediately, and set them up on a flat surface.  You'll have about ten seconds to get the fit right before this 'glue' sets up. 

This even works to connect broken pieces.  Somebody bumped the cooling rack and knocked most of the gingerbread to the floor.  Several broke. 

No problem.

This is where the frosting comes in handy- to make your decorations stick!  I also like to cover the places the sugar glue shows.  For more ideas on what you can use for decorating, see my three-page handout on making gingerbread houses.

One done.  This one was actually a kit, though I used the Hot Sugar Glue to stick it together.

We make a bunch of little houses every year; each child gets to decorate his/her own.  Some years we've just made and decorated a house FRONT- a large, house-shaped, FLAT cookie.  Not 3-D.

 Part of the tradition is that we eat our houses on New Years' Eve, though somehow there's always candy missing off them by then!

Have fun! 
It's that time of year...

to make gingerbread houses!  Whether you want to make one for a competition, or just make something fun with your children, here's my family's tried-and-tested favorite recipe for eating AND building. (See here for a gluten-free recipe, or just substitute a GF flour blend in place of regular flour.)  We have a yearly tradition of everyone in the family decorating a small house.  If you want a recipe that will bake up thin yet strong, suitable for competition-level houses, the next couple pictures are of this one.  The eating/building recipe has more leavening and therefore a lighter crunch.  The 'building' recipe, below, is also good, but more dense.  Be sure to roll this one thinly!!!

See here for Part 2- Assembling and Decorating

For the full recipe, along with more instructions, tips, and things I've learned, it's also on the link above.  Put in a large bowl or medium saucepan: 1 1/2 c. light corn syrup, 1 1/4 c. brown sugar, and 1 cup butter.  This will be easiest if you cut each cube of butter into 5-6 chunks.

Heat in the microwave about a minute or until everything melts and can be stirred together.  If using a saucepan, heat over medium-high, stirring until the sugar and butter melt.

Add the dry ingredients to the bowl:
6 3/4 c. flour, 1 Tbsp. cinnamon, 1 1/2 tsp. ginger, 1/2 tsp. salt.

I like to grab the dry stuff with my fingers and mix lightly before mixing it with the wet, this saves the step of pre-stirring all the dry ingredients in a separate bowl first.  

Stir until everything is mixed well.

This dough will be warm and firm yet soft; it gets stiffer as it cools.  It's easiest to roll out while still warm. 
If it gets too stiff, return to the microwave for 30 seconds to rewarm it.    

Divide dough into 2 or three pieces.  Working with one a time, roll  directly onto parchment, if at all possible.  This will save you immeasurable aggravation! 

Try to get it an even 1/8" thick.  As you can see, this is quite thin.  The corn syrup gives this dough a lot of strength.

Put your pattern on top of the dough, and cut around each piece.  Try to have each piece touching as much as possible.  The easiest way to cut them, by far, is to use a pizza cutter or pastry wheel.

Bake until golden brown and firm to the touch.  Pull out of the oven, and IMMEDIATELY re-cut the pieces, if you need them to be exact.  They will have spread a little bit.  If you're making eight houses for your family, you can skip this step! 

My favorite part of baking gingerbread houses: eating the 'twigs', the skinny little pieces trimmed off the house parts.  They are addictive!    

To make stand-up trees, cut out two for each tree.  Cut a section out of the middle of one of the pieces, as wide as your dough is thick.  You'll 'glue' one  of these halves on the front of the whole tree, the other half on the back.        

Cool on a cooling rack.  When all the way cool, I like to stack all the pieces for one house in each stack.  Here are five houses, ready to put together.

Next is the really fun part- decorating!  That will be another post in a couple days.
It's the little details that make gingerbread so fun!