Twelve (or more) Days of Christmas

Good morning dear readers! I have a confession to make: I haven’t sent out Christmas cards for two years. Somehow each December seems to fly by and before I know it, I’m heading to my parents for the holidays and my stack of cards is still sitting on the dining room table. But this year, in an effort to show how much I value those who make my life better, I’m going to try. I may or may not succeed 100%, but at least I’m making the effort!

Since I can’t send a card to each and every one of you (although if you email me your address, I’ll put you on the list!), my gift to you all this holiday season will be to give 110% on the blogging front. Truth be told, I’ve been saving up some awesome ideas for weeks now, so from now until Christmas, my plan is to post at least every other day (do the math, it’ll make the title of this post make more sense). From décor to gift ideas, I hope I can share a little inspiration and help thaw the brain freeze that can accompany trying to find the perfect present.

An aside: This year, I’ve chosen not to use the politically correct “holiday” in lieu of Christmas. Not because I’m ignoring the other holidays that fall at this time of year, but simply because that’s what I celebrate. Sometimes we take such drastic steps to make sure no one is left out that we end up over-generalizing or making the world feel like one homogenized landscape rather than celebrating what makes each culture unique. I hope you can use the ideas I write about in your own traditions this season, and please feel free to leave comments about how you’d use these ideas in your life!

Thanksgiving 101: Desserts

When it comes to Thanksgiving, I’m a traditionalist. I want my turkey, stuffing and pecan pie the way they’ve always been, thank you very much. I actually get a little bummed out when the holiday is held anywhere but my parents’ house, as obviously my mom whips up the best spread around.

However, if Aunt Gertrude is bringing her famous pumpkin pie and your favorite niece Lucy is trying her hand at her first pecan… I suppose there’s a little room for creativity at the dessert table.

First up, a classic caramel apple makes a perfect addition to your autumnal spread. I like the variety offered by Kaitlin & Kylie’s, but I’m sure you can purchase them locally in any area of the country this time of year!

Everyone loves cupcakes. They’re perfectly portioned, and you get an ample amount of frosting with every bite. My favorite flavor at the moment? Salted caramel. It’s the perfect addition to your holiday spread, just as the tartness of the apple contrasts the sweet caramel above, the saltiness of this recipe cuts through what might otherwise be overly sweet sugary flavor. Plus the salted caramel sugar art on the top makes these a real showpiece!

And the piece de resistance? A pumkin-shaped pumkin cake of course. Read about the trials and tribulations of making that lovely Burnt Orange Silk Miringue Buttercream here, then go out and buy yourself a jar of frosting, ad a few drops of orange flavoring and viola! It’s ok to be lazy, you’ve got a turkey to worry about.

Thanksgiving 101: Décor

It probably seems a little much to totally transform your home for Thanksgiving. You’ve got some serious cooking to do, right? On the other hand, a few simple touches can go a long way and elevate an everyday family dinner to a special event.

Infuse your table with the colors (and scent!) of fall with this ombre apple centerpiece found in styled. magazine. I love the beautiful array of tones of apples available this time of year and the way they mixed and matched the napkins on this table as well—no need to go out an buy three new sets just so everyone’s is the same! (By the way—I love fabric napkins. A) They’re much prettier than paper ones. B) They make even a Tuesday night dinner feel special, restaurant-worthy even. C) That whole eco-friendly thing. Wash and re-use, people!)

Speaking of mixing and matching, are you lacking enough flatware for all your guests? Take this idea from Creature Comforts: Buy a cheap assortment of forks, spoons and knives from your local resale shop, spray paint the ends with colors that match the rest of your table and you have a funky set of silverware for any guest who comes along! I might add looking into some sort of varnish that will stick to both the paint and metal to seal the handles, as spray paint will sometimes flake off onto your hands. Best yet, send your guests home with a little something special (caramel corn perhaps?) in these easy-to-make favor bags. Simply make a tube out of paper and sew the ends in perpendicular directions. If you plan ahead and print your guests’ names on each bag, you can place one at each setting and they’ll do double duty as place cards as well!

The BEST Salad Ever!

I’m not a salad girl. At a restaurant I’m much more likely to order ribs and fries than a plate full of greens, but lately I’ve been craving just that. Well, actually just one salad in particular. Madison’s most authentic Irish pub on the capitol square, Brocach is home to the amazing Shades of Green salad and today I got all the fixins’ and whipped up my own version. Here’s my recipe!

•Mixed greens—go with something more flavorful than Iceburg. I like a mix with frisée and some red or purple leaves, they have a bitterness that works great with the sweet elements in the toppings!
•Raspberry vinaigrette—the trick to a great salad is to toss your greens with your dressing before adding the rest of your ingredients!
•Bleu cheese crumbles
•Dried cranberries
•Candied walnuts

Mmmmm… I’m getting hungry again. Enjoy!

Andie’s Specialty Sweets

Lately I’ve become more and more intrigued by etsians producing and selling their culinary creations. Are they all professional chefs? Are there any special restrictions for selling food online? Are they making each piece to order? How does it feel to entrust something so vulnerable to the Postal Service?

I thought I’d start with an interview with a master of the most captivating of all foodie goodness: sugar! I’ve had the confection version of the Scrabble tiles below on my favorites list for a while now, and while I haven’t yet found the perfect occasion to order them for, I did get us all a sneak peak into the company that creates them: Andie’s Specialty Sweets. Andie herself took a little time out of her sweet life to give us one of the most informative interviews to date! And it sounds like Andie’s has some exciting things happening in the near future, so stay tuned!

Tell us about your work—why do you create what you do?
There is something inherently delightful about creating anything with a bit of sugary shock value. Besides the sheer enjoyment of the work itself, we like the flexibility our mail order sugar creations give our wide range of customers. For those planning any special event, we know it is not always easy to piece together the confectionery contents, overall structure, finished design, and final price and find all those components that one likes under one roof, or one’s personal kitchen. Throw in a busy schedule …and who couldn’t use a break? We hope to offer one piece of the puzzle, that might eliminate a bit of the challenge associated with confectionery design.

How did you learn your craft?
I am self taught. My background does have a culinary setting with a dad who was a trained chef, and who taught me the thrill of what a dash here and a splash there can do. Making pancakes and pastry dough from scratch was ordinary growing up, and from a young age I was encouraged to read a recipe and get messy. Straight out of high school exciting jobs, with more learning and hands-on instruction than I could get in school, rolled out before me. Each one was a hard decision, knowing I was prolonging a potential degree of some sort, but the outcome served as invaluable to a great extent. By the time I was 21, being in business for myself was natural and wonderful! Before Jason and I began starting our family (which kept coming until we stopped at 4) I was running a productive interior mural and decorative painting operation. I didn’t want to miss a moment with our first baby so choosing a stay at home role let the creativity pour out and into caring for my family. It was here, at the center of making life delightful for those I loved that confectionery bliss spun it’s magic.

Are there any particular challenges to selling perishable goods online?
This is a challenge we’ve endeavored to avoid from the beginning. Thankfully, the majority of our items are non-perishable. We’ve worked really hard from a list of principles and goals to develop recipes that are amazing (taste wise), do not spoil, are as wholesome as possible (without dismissing the sugar), and will stand up against the heat (for travel and outdoor events).

One of the great advantages of chocolate is that it keeps very well. Our chocolate filled items have the shortest shelf life out of all our treats, but still maintain an amazing 8 months of optimal palatability. The biggest problem that can arise dealing with chocolate is if the chocolate is exposed to heat, melts a little, and separates from the cocoa butter which can cause discoloration or ‘bloom’ on the surface. This is due to the fat melting and re-crystalizing. It is not dangerous for eating, but it looks bad and it can effect the taste. We’ve spent allot of time developing our candy shell which insulates and seals our chocolate from any premature unfavorable results, such as these.

What should buyers look for in a confectioner?
What one looks for in a confectioner is an individual prerogative. This is why the confectionery world has such variety – there is a market for it all. Everyone has their unique selling point. Our business has developed from our own personal preferences. As far as preparation goes, there are many things I cannot tolerate. I have one of those overactive minds when it comes to hygiene. One of our many rules is, “No talking over the sweets.” There is not an open mouth when sugar creating is commenced. Another selling point for us is quality – it is everything, and we’d rather savor a special, occasional, exceptional sweet than many ordinary ones.

The irony to this sweet side of our lives, is we may be the most unlikely ones to be the minds behind such sugary delights. Besides subsiding off mostly a raw diet, we fit the mold for the typical alternative medicine, non-fluoride toothpaste, and anti-junk food (minus the looking down on others who don’t do the same) family. The raw diet was a horrible thought when Jason first presented the idea. I could not imagine the simmer of stews, soups, and sauces being replaced with a cold salad and a glass of milk…every night. But now that we are so busy…it is the most convenient way to eat, and has given us astounding energy for our busy schedule. We do, however, believe there is a time and place for everything. And for us, since a treat is a real treat in our household, we wanted to create something worthwhile – not too sweet, full of flavor, the best ingredients, and surprising to the eye.

How has your work evolved? How do you learn new techniques?
Our work has evolved simply from doing it. The more we work with our recipes and ideas, it becomes second nature. Similarly, the more familiar we become with how things work, the more techniques we are able to develop. At this stage, we are most successful in developing techniques from trial and error—we think something might work, so we try it. We’ve encountered some real disasters, inside the privacy of our own studio, but there is so much to learn from failures – inevitably, they make you strong.

What is your favorite thing to make?
Let’s put it this way…there is nothing I don’t like to make, nothing has become tedious or mundane—it is the most fun job we could ever ask for.

What is your greatest challenge?
Our greatest challenge, at the moment, is a need for a systems/business manager….and I already know who it is – we’re just waiting for her to leave her job and all that is secure in her life, and come work for us…heehee. Having someone to take care of all the details of scheduling, customer interaction, budgeting, inventory (and the list goes on) would be like giving us one more Andie. Our production would double and you’d see even more creative works brought to conception.

What inspires you?
A combination of beautiful things and people inspire me. Beautiful aspects of creation, whether intrinsic to our surround or from the hands of collective minds…float through my sphere of enchantment, and I often see them, quite literally…as candy. Equally, I consider people and what might allure and delight them.

Tell us about your etsy business.
Andie’s Specialty Sweets is our full time job. Here’s our walk down memory lane. I discovered Etsy for the first time, after punching in a search for “hand crocheted baby blanket”. It was after several purchases that I thought to myself, “I guess I could list a couple sugar flowers in here and see if I get a job here and there – that might be fun.” Six months went by and no customers. Finally a kind soul noticed I had not refreshed one listing since I opened my shop, nor did I have a shop banner. She generously gave her time to teach me the ropes. It took one year to reach our 100th sale. After that we began experiencing a strange phenomena of sales doubling every month. It was then that we began seeing the potential and decided to go for it, and made strategies for raising 4 young kids while we balanced two full time jobs. We have sense narrowed down our focus and reliance on the sole work and income from Andie’s Specialty Sweets, and it’s rewards keep on coming.

Where can readers find your work?
We’ve decided to wait on retail opportunities, have been very selective and thoughtful of where we would sell our items, and have focused our energies into the quality and integrity of our edibles. And I’m really glad we have. Quality control and maintaining our brand has been important to us. But good things come to those who wait – so keep your eyes peeled. We think we’ve found our perfect resale match, we just can’t tell you yet…shhhhh.

What advice do you have for new etsians?
Everyone should protect their business. Besides being a hubbub for the media spotlight, Etsy is teaming with designers and developers looking for the next best thing. The exposure at Etsy is phenomenal. Everyone should eventually, at some point, trade mark their name and copyright their images. Even if one’s creations are not particularly unique, the photographs that depict their work and name is. This important step will make all your endeavors valuable, to a potential buyer or for personal long term sustainability. It’s a minimal investment, and worth it in the long run.

[Editor’s Note: I can’t help but second this piece of advice with a resounding YES! And supplement it with the fact that the trademark process will be much easier if you choose a unique name. I had a run-in when I first began my letterpress business under a different moniker: Despite googling, searching on etsy and checking with briar press, a few weeks after I started my shop, a woman emailed to say she would be taking legal action if I didn’t change my name immediately. Did my due diligence and the fact that I couldn’t find her three weeks before matter? No, what mattered was that she had been granted the trademark for the name a week prior. Luckily, I hadn’t done much in the way of brand development yet and was only out a couple dozen cards and the cost of a few printing plates—plus I’d gained a little wisdom and began the process to trademark 622press immediately. I hope all small business owners out there can learn from my mistake!]