Easy Tips to a Stress Free Thanksgiving

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Thanksgiving is only a few days away and the tension is building. People are getting nervous about traveling, creating the perfect feast or are simply frustrated with cranky people. Take a deep breath everyone. The holidays don’t have to be another reason to grumble. Here are some simple ways to enjoy your holiday and not feel trapped in the kitchen.

1.) Pick Recipes You Already Know

The most important thing for surviving the holidays is knowing what to expect. Pick recipes you already know are good and that you’ve made before. If you really want to try something new, pick only one recipe. New recipes are so easy to mess up and no one wants to bring a dud to the table.

Example: My office decided to throw a Christmas party and I wanted to try making homemade eggnog. The problem was the milk boiled and the whole thing curdled. I was stuck with chunky eggnog pudding. I didn’t have a pretty dish to put it in so I could pretend it was intentional. So, I brought in my pitcher of thick eggnog goo to the potluck. Needless to say, no one ate it and I haven’t tried to make eggnog since.

2.) Go Grocery Shopping Early

We all know that the closer it is to the holidays, the worse the grocery store becomes. I know that if I want to stay in the holiday spirit, I have to avoid grumpy stressed people trying to run you over to get to the checkout lane. Take the time now to put together your grocery list and get to the store while it’s still relatively quiet. It also gives you plenty of time to grab any last minute forgotten items.

Example: Last year I realized that I had forgotten to purchase the sweetened condensed milk I need to make my amazing pumpkin pie. Thankfully I realized this out early enough in the day and could make my own. It took a long time, but I was able to make my pumpkin pie without anyone realizing my mistake. So before you rush to the store, do a quick online search for possible substitutes. You might have something on hand you can use instead.

3.) Make Your Sides and Desserts Ahead of Time

You can make your pumpkin, apple, pecan or mincemeat pie several days ahead of time. Just bake them and keep them in the fridge until the big day. If you really want to plan ahead you can assemble your pie, not bake it and keep it in the freezer for several weeks. The day before your feast just pop it in the oven and give it plenty of time to cool. Most of your sides can be treated the same way. You can assemble, keep in the fridge and wait to bake or freeze and bake later.

Example: I try to make as much as I can before Thanksgiving day. It’s nice to wake up in the morning and just have to pop things in the oven. I always make my spinach pie, cheesy potatoes, pies, stuffing and small breakfast casserole ahead of time. Look at your recipes a second time. Your green bean casserole can easily be put together the night before.

4.) Know What You’re Doing with the Turkey

Almost every Thanksgiving horror story I read involves cooks who have never made a turkey before or want to try a new method. If you want to try something new, whether it’s roasting, frying, brining or smoking you want to test it out first. Buy a frozen chicken and try the method you prefer. Practice before the big day instead of running the risk of ruining the star of the meal.

Other Turkey Tips:
– Thawing your turkey can take days. Make sure you have enough time.
– When you’re estimating how much time you’ll need to roast, always double the time. I’ve never cooked an 8 lb. turkey in under 3 hours. You can always reheat the turkey, but you can’t serve it raw.
– If you’re brining your turkey, make sure your container is large enough to fit the bird, brine and ice. (5 and 10 gallon containers are best)
– Measure your oven before buying your turkey to make sure it will fit.
– Use a meat thermometer to avoid over or under cooking.
– Make sure you remove the giblets before roasting.
– Cook your stuffing outside of your turkey to avoid salmonella.
– Let the meat rest 15-20 minutes before carving.
– Keep animals out of the kitchen and away from the turkey!

Example: The first time I made the turkey for Thanksgiving I decided to brine it. I used a five gallon bucket I had cleaned out and added ice periodically. I put something heavy on the lid to avoid any canine investigation and I roasted the turkey to perfection. I did however have to transport my bird to my mother’s house. I covered it with tin foil and left it in the roasting pan. I was afraid it would move too much on the floor, so I put it on the passenger seat and drove very carefully across town. The turkey did survive the trip, but my car seat did not. It had a stain from the turkey drippings until the day I sold it. The moral of the story: whoever cooks the turkey hosts the party. You can transport it, but it’s a pain. Turkeys are best right out of the oven and it’s easier to make the gravy with fresh drippings.

In case you were wondering, I haven’t brined a turkey since that year. It was a lot of extra work and it only tasted good. I find that fresh turkeys are worth the extra money. They taste better, absorb the subtle flavors you toss in the cavity nicely and have a lot less salt injected into them which keeps them from tasting too dry.

5.) Plan an Appetizer or Pickle Tray

If you’re serving your Thanksgiving feast at 4:00 and having an early breakfast, expect to have a few rumbling tummies. Having a quick appetizer to pass around will give your guests something to hold them over but won’t fill them up. It will also keep the pressure off of you while everyone waits for the turkey to finish roasting.

Example: One Thanksgiving I made spinach artichoke roll-ups as a nice appetizer. However, they had to be baked and the oven was spoken for. Thankfully, there was a small convection oven on the countertop that I could use. The only problem was that it took longer to make everything because I had to work in batches. By the time everything was ready, half of the plate had cooled off. I learned my lesson after that and stick to a simple olive and pickle tray. They’re so easy to put together, don’t take up a lot of precious space in the fridge and are delicious. Any reason to have pickles works for me!

6.) Clean Your House Ahead of Time

Don’t wait until the last minute to put everything away, mop, and clean the bathrooms. The day of you should only have to vacuum and light a few candles in the bathrooms. It’s one less thing you have to worry about.

Example: Holidays are stressful for me because that’s always the time of the year that everyone is hosting a party and work is chaotic. I get home and the last thing I want to do is make a pie. Instead of grumbling or skipping this homemade festival, I normally set aside a schedule. On Friday I’ll do my grocery shopping, Saturday I’ll make my pie, Sunday I’ll take off and Monday I’ll clean the bathrooms. I find that if I chip away at my To Do List it’s easier to face the holidays. The most satisfying moment every Thanksgiving and Christmas is driving home the night before the big day. The grocery stores are packed, cars are bumper to bumper and everyone around me is grouchy. Instead of feeding into it, I get to sit back and smile. All the hard work is already done and I can enjoy my holiday.

Holidays are the time of the year you get to spend with close friends and family and have a delicious feast. It’s a chance for old traditions and making some new ones. Whether you’re hosting your first Thanksgiving or bringing a dish for Christmas, there are some simple things you can do to enjoy the season instead of dreading it. Plan ahead, kick back and relax. Enjoy your holiday instead of feeding into the stress and frustration.

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Sweet Potato Shepherd’s Pie

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Fall is the ultimate excuse for comfort food. Everything about the season calls for you to have something delicious roasting or baking in the oven. It’s time to break out your sweet potatoes, apple pies, pumpkin bread and cranberries!

I’m always on the lookout for different recipes to try. Normally, this starts with my random cravings, but this delicious find came from the magazine Everyday with Rachel Ray. I have no idea how I got a subscription, but I always glance at it when it arrives. I enjoy the Food Network, but rarely make their recipes because they normally call for several ingredients that I don’t keep in my pantry.

I was intrigued when there was a section dedicated to budget meals that actually looked really good. It was a fall dedicated magazine so one recipe used applesauce and the other used mashed sweet potatoes. Needless to say, I was game. I collected my recipes for the week and got to cooking.

Here’s my intriguing tidbit for the day – I made four Rachel Ray recipes: three budget meals and one 30 Minute Meal. I picked the 30 Minute Meal because I wanted to make something special. My husband and I loved two of the budget meals, liked the third and didn’t care for the 30 Minute Meal. It just proves that you don’t need fancy ingredients to make an amazing meal.

We have made this recipe twice already – the magazine only came out in September – and I keep telling myself that I’m going to set aside half and freeze it. Sadly, it hasn’t made it there yet. The only changes that we made is to use ground turkey instead of ground pork. Because turkey is so bland, we had used more seasonings than the original recipe called for. My husband, who seasons like a pro, made this the first time and we devoured the pot. I made it the second time and was hesitant with the seasonings. It was good, but was so much better when I added a bit more cumin, garlic, salt and pepper. Don’t be afraid to give this a little kick.


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Sweet Potato Shepherd’s Pie

Recipe by Rachel Ray with Creative Campbell additions

Ingredients

  • 2 lbs. sweet potatoes
  • 2 Tbsp. butter
  • salt and pepper
  • 3 Tbsp. maple syrup
  • 2 tsp. smoked paprika
  • 3 tsp. ground cumin
  • 3 tsp. garlic powder
  • 1-2 tsp. cayenne powder, depending on preference
  • 1 lb. ground turkey
  • 1/4 cup white wine
  • 1 cup chopped yellow onion
  • 1 bag frozen corn kernels, thawed

Cook sweet potatoes in oven or in the microwave if you are pressed for time. Remove orange innards and place in a mixing bowl. Add butter, salt and pepper and maple syrup. Mash together and set aside.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a Dutch oven, toast the paprika and cumin over medium-high heat, stirring 1 minute. Add the turkey, garlic and cayenne powder. Cook 6-7 minutes breaking turkey apart with a spoon. Add wine and cook 2 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to transfer turkey to a separate bowl and discard all but 2 Tbsp. of the liquid. Set turkey aside.

In the Dutch oven, cook the onion over medium heat, stirring until softened about 3 minutes. Add the corn and cook 1-2 minutes. Add the turkey and mix well. Season with salt and pepper.

Flatten turkey mixture to create a layer. Add mashed sweet potatoes on top and smooth to create a second layer. Bake for 15 minutes, then broil 3-5 minutes to brown the top.

Homemade Pumpkin Soup

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Everyone has their Halloween traditions. Some people fill their evenings with candy, scary tales or simply sit by candlelight sipping apple cider. I prefer to be somewhere in the middle. I like to watch a scary movie by candlelight and eat something that reminds me of Fall. In the past, my recipes have been limited to a creepy crawly dessert. This year I wanted to try something I little different.

I am a sucker for Pinterest. I know, the reality of what you can create vs. what is advertised are always two separate things. But, they had this adorable image of homemade pumpkin soup that I couldn’t resist. (As seen above) I managed to find baking pumpkins in South Florida, which is a miracle unto itself, and took it as a sign that this pumpkin soup was meant to be.

I stayed true to my bad habits and didn’t read through the recipe before starting. I had baked my beautiful pumpkins and then realized I was supposed to fill them with the apple, onion and chicken broth so the ingredients could cook at the same time. Whoops! I adjusted the recipe a little bit and combined everything on the stove top. It tasted good, but it had the consistency of custard, not soup. I thought about adding some more chicken broth, but was afraid it would take away from the flavor.

My husband and I tried the pumpkin soup the first night. It was ok. Definitely not worth the hassle and precious goat cheese. The only problem, we had a lot of leftovers with very little desire to consume any of it. I looked online for recipes to salvage the soup. The best I could find was pumpkin mac and cheese. My only problem, I’d have to use even more cheese and precious ingredients with only a slight hope of improvement. My husband, being the brilliant man that he is, had another solution. He recommended that we mix the soup with Campbell’s tomato soup. This way it stops being a custard and blends with the tomato flavors. It was delicious! The pumpkin was a nice subtle flavor that made the soup very filling and healthy. From my leftovers, I had enough to make three cans worth of tomato soup.

If I had to make it again, I’d cut the recipe in half and serve it with the tomato soup. It’s a great way to hide the healthy ingredients from your little ones and add a hint of fall to a classic meal. So here’s my take on pumpkin soup with my many adjustments.

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Pumpkin Soup with a Creative Campbell Spin

  • 1 small sugar pie pumpkin
  • 1/4 small yellow onion diced
  • 1 cloves garlic chopped
  • 1/2 small green apple chopped
  • 1 Tbs butter
  • 1 Tb olive oil
  • 1 cup chicken broth
  • 1/4 cup half and half
  • 1 ounces goat cheese
  • 1/2 tsp thyme
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 2 cans Campbell’s tomato soup
  • Milk

 Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Slice pumpkin in half. Using a large spoon or ice cream scoop, scrape out the seeds. Brush the pumpkin innards with 1 Tbs of oil. Place on a baking dish in the oven for 30-45 hour. Test pumpkin by poking with a fork or knife. If it’s soft, then set your pumpkin aside and let cool.

Fill a medium pot with the onion, garlic, apple, butter, chicken broth, half and half, salt and pepper and turn heat to medium low. Don’t let it boil. Once onions are soft, turn on low.

Remove pumpkin from shell with a spoon. Scrape into the pot and add the goat cheese and thyme. Use an immersion blender or food processor to combine the ingredients and make it the same consistency. Set aside.

In a separate pan make Campbell’s tomato soup with milk instead of water. Once the soup is ready, add a ladle full of the pumpkin soup. Taste. Add more and adjust as needed.

Enjoy!

Homemade Gummy Worms

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I have a few weaknesses. I can walk away from chocolate, cookies, cupcakes, donuts and cakes without any regrets. Place gummies in front of me and there will be no resisting. I love gummy animals, fruit snacks, sugar coated gummies and sour gummies. I don’t care what they are. If they’re unclaimed, they’re probably coming home with me.

Every Halloween I try to make something special. Considering my gummy passion, it made sense to try to create my own gummies. I found an easy recipe online for sugar free gummy worms. They’re ridiculously easy to make. You use sugar free Jello and extra gelatin. You can layer the flavors if you’d like. I decided to use orange and strawberry. You chill them and then slice them into thin worms.

I went the extra mile and created a dirt dessert I used to have as a kid. You mix chocolate pudding with your gummy worms and top with crumbled Oreos. You can add extra ingredients like whipped cream or coconut. The priority is to make it look like you’re scooping a mound of dirt into your bowl. It looks a little unappealing, but tastes delicious. Your kids will love it!

Overall, the gummy worms were really easy to make. It was nice to be able to control the ingredients. If I made them again I might use a different recipe that uses fruit juice instead of the Jello. I would highly recommend this as a great cooking project to do with kids. It’s very simple and can help make lots of Halloween memories in the kitchen.

gummy worms

Sugar Free Gummy Worms

Ingredients

  • 3 envelopes unflavored gelatin
  • 2 packages sugar-free Jello, any flavors
  • 1 cup boiling water
  • 1 package Kool-Aid, any flavor (optional)

Directions

  1. Combine all ingredients until dissolved.
  2. Pour into an 8×8” pan, lightly sprayed.
  3. Refrigerate until firm.
  4. Cut into “worm like” strips.

The Best Harry Potter Party

The things that really make a Harry Potter party are the small details and decorations. Yes, you can dim the lights, serve some candy and draw a lightning bolt on your forehead, but you need something special to take your party to the next level. I did that with a combination of things – the food, drinks and the decorations.

I transformed our home into Hogwarts – a Magical School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. I tried to tie as many of the classes into our meals and created a series of challenges. Get the questions right and you earn a special magical treat.

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For breakfast, I served Transfiguration muffins with our dragon eggs.

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The challenges started with the Defense Against the Dark Arts. My husband had match the spells with what it does. For his efforts, he got a magic wand. Now, our wands were simply pretzel rods dipped in three kinds of chocolate, dark, milk and white, and covered with candy or nuts. To keep with the Harry Potter theme I labeled each wand combination so they would be more like the ones you would find at Olivander’s. Try each one and see which wand you prefer. Have fun with the combinations. The Pear and Troll Whisker actually tasted really good.

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  • Pear and Troll Whisker = white chocolate and Haribo gummies
  • Holly and Unicorn Hair = white chocolate and craisins
  • Mahogany and Dragon Heartstring = milk chocolate and pistachios
  • Ivy and Thestral Hair = dark chocolate and almonds

He had a Flying lesson where he had to match the different Quidditch positions with the types to Quidditich balls used. When he got them right, he received a Nimbus 2000 and a  Firebolt. I used brown paper which I folded and glued together to look like a broom bottom. I filled the Nimbus 2000 bottom with my favorite gummy treats which were individually wrapped with saran wrap and tied closed. I used a milk chocolate dipped pretzel as my broomstick. I filled the Firebolt with my husband’s favorite chocolate treats which were individually wrapped and added a dark chocolate dipped pretzel. This way we had something to snack on during the movie.

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For lunch we had Herbology Sandwiches and Transfiguration Muffins. Herbology sandwiches are a vegetarian sandwiches made with lettuce, avocado, apple, red onion, cucumber, tomato, alfalfa sprouts and topped with vinegar. I used tarragon vinegar my mother had given us for Christmas. It tasted great, but the vinegar made the bread very wet. Next time I’ll use a different type of bread that can withstand the liquid.

*if you look closely you can see the ears and tail on the muffin.

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He had a Charms class where he had to answer questions about each magical object. When he got them right, he got lightning bolt shaped cheese slices and golden snitch wheat crackers. See, not every treat has to involve chocolate and candy. I didn’t want to spend extra money on cookie cutters I’d only use once. Instead, I made my own with a lasagna pan I bought at the Dollar Store. For the simple designs, the homemade cookie cutters worked. For the more complicated ones, it didn’t work very well.

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We had tea time, of course. What better to serve than Divination Tea and homemade Sorting Hat digestives, a British cookie traditionally served with tea. I dipped my cookies in chocolate because that’s my favorite way to have them. I used another homemade cookie cutter for my Sorting Hats. They tasted great, but the cookie cutters didn’t work very well. Because the design is so complicated, I would recommend buying it.

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During his Potions class, my husband had to face the mice and match the potions with what it does. For his efforts, he got a glass of homemade butterbeer. This stuff is highly addictive and full of sugary happiness. I didn’t have rum extract so I simply used rum. I was serving it to adults so it didn’t matter. It tasted amazing. I’m planning on making it again this Halloween.

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Located by our dog’s crate, my husband had to match the Magical Creatures to their description. He earned a chocolate frog for each right answer. I found the chocolate frog mold on amazon.com for a very reasonable price. They’re too cute to pass up. One of my husband’s favorite chocolate treats are orange chocolates. I decided to use an orange chocolate truffle recipe and follow all of the steps except forming the truffles. I simply put them in my frog molds. They were delicious!

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I included a few special touches throughout our home to tie it all together.


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As the official gift, I got my husband the blu ray set of the Harry Potter films wrapped in parcel paper and sent by Owl Post, also known as me sneaking it into our mailbox without him noticing. I designed his birthday card around the Maurader’s Map forewarning him that I was up to no good. He had no idea just how much I was up to until he stepped into our decorated apartment and had enough food and activities to last the whole weekend. Our magical weekend was a huge success. My husband loved it and I certainly think it’s the best birthday party I will ever throw.

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