Friday, December 30, 2011

Chocolate Bread Pudding

Days before many of us will part with sweets for the new year, let me slip this one last delicious recipe in for the holidays. My sister-in-law Shannon made chocolate bread pudding recently, and it was love at first bite. I knew immediately this would be the perfect rich, gooey dessert to enjoy after the girls' Christmas recital. Friends joined us for dinner after the show, and I let the bread pudding bake during dinner. Served warm from the oven with vanilla bean ice cream, it was heavenly! The recipe follows, along with a few photos of the evening's best sweets: my little ballerinas Mary Ashley and Emma.
Chocolate Bread Pudding
Enjoy this delicious dessert a la mode while it is still warm from the oven.
6 cups cubed French bread, crusts removed
1/4 cup margarine, melted
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup cocoa powder
2 1/4 cups whole milk
1 cup cream
2 packages chocolate chips
2 eggs, beaten
1/2 cup cream
1 cup confectioners sugar
Place the bread cubes in a large bowl, and drizzle with melted margarine. Toss to coat. Mix together the sugar and cocoa powder, sprinkle evenly over the bread cubes, and toss again. Reserve 1 cup chocolate chips for glaze, and toss the rest of the first bag with the bread mixture. Spread bread cubes evenly into an 8-inch square baking dish.

In a medium saucepan, heat the milk just to the boiling point and remove from heat. Add the second package of chocolate chips, and whisk until smooth.

In a medium bowl, beat eggs until frothy. Slowly whisk in chocolate mixture. Pour over bread cubes in baking dish. Cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour.

Bake at 350 degrees about 35 minutes, or until the pudding is set but the center moves slightly when the dish is shaken.

Meanwhile, prepare glaze. Place reserved cup of chocolate chips and 1/2 cup cream in a microwave-safe measuring cup. Microwave, stirring frequently, until the chips are melted. Whisk in the confectioners sugar until the mixture is smooth. Drizzle over warm pudding, and serve with vanilla ice cream.

Emma took center stage with her class for the first song of the night. This is the first year the girls have been in separate ballet classes, so they were excited to watch each other's performances. Emma was a little bashful when she first went onstage, but she warmed up and her cute personality came through.

Mary Ashley (second from the right, sitting) moved up to an older class this year, and her performance brought tears to my eyes. She floated gracefully across the stage, and friends said she needed wings because she looked like a little fairy. She is a natural ballerina!

Here are our little ballerinas, ready to head home for some chocolate bread pudding!

Wishing You and Yours a Happy and Blessed New Year!

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

A TeaTime Surprise

I was delighted to visit Smith-Byrd House in Prattville, Ala., for a little friend's tea party recently and discover a sweet surprise in the gift shop: the latest issue of TeaTime, which includes my article "The Valentine Tea." TeaTime is one of my favorite publications, so it is a dream come true to be included in the magazine. You can find my essay in "The Tea Diaries" on page 60 of the Jan./Feb. 2012 issue. I picked up an extra copy at Smith-Byrd, so I would love to share one with you. Please leave a comment below, and I will draw a name out of the teacup for a copy of this inspiring issue.

Congratulations to my sweet friend Becky Welch, who won my Book Club Christmas giveaway of a book and handmade velvet bookmark. Becky has started her own book club in Henderson, Tenn., so I hope she will enjoy tucking her bookmark into their latest selection.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

A Birthday Teapot Cake

When our little friend Emma Brown decided to have a birthday tea at Smith-Byrd House in Prattville, I immediately volunteered to make her cake. I hope this chocolate cake with buttercream icing was 8-year-old Emma's cup of tea.

The teapot is a Wilton ball cake, baked in two half-sphere pans and secured with icing. The handle and spout are cut from cardboard and inserted into the cake. Covered with icing piped on with a star tip, you would never know! I guess my favorite technique right now for covering a cake is piping swirls of icing on with a large star tip because the varying circles work together to look like roses. Pink rose buds piped on with an angled tip -- accented with green leaves and stems piped on with a V-shaped tip and small round tip, respectively -- complete the design. And this little teapot is ready to be tipped over and poured out for a sweet little girl's birthday.
And speaking of birthdays, today is my 39th! eek!

This birthday moves me swiftly toward that big birthday that many women fear. But I love what Christian Dior has to say on the matter: "Women are most fascinating between the ages of 35 and 40 after they have won a few races and know how to pace themselves. Since few women ever pass 40, maximum fascination can continue indefinitely."

So let's raise our teacups to obtaining maximum fascination! Tomorrow, a teatime surprise.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas from the Lester family!

This year I decided to plan a frosty photo shoot for our Christmas cards with sweaters, scarves, hats and mittens. A couple of mugs of hot chocolate -- actually just whipped cream -- served as a great prop for the group photos. The photos at the end of the  shoot were really the cherry on top. Can you see the difference between sisters and brothers in these pictures? My sweet girls above.

And my boys. They love each other, too. To death, I am afraid.

Carson really wanted to put the whipped cream in Christian's face, and even though Christian agreed I initially said no. But then I reconsidered, repositioned them and snapped away as they laughed hysterically at Christian's whipped cream beard. These photos turned out to be my favorites from the afternoon!

Sweet Sisters.

Oh, Brothers!

The whipped cream in our hot chocolate: Christian, 10; Mary Ashley, 7; Emma, 5; and Carson, 12.

I hope your cup of blessings overflows this holiday season!

Merry Christmas,

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Jingle Bell Rock Kids Christmas Party

Jingle bell, jingle bell, jingle bell rock
Jingle bells swing and jingle bells ring
Snowing and blowing up bushels of fun
Now the jingle hop has begun

Last Friday we had our annual Christmas party the day the children got out of school. Two years ago we invited our favorite pair of sisters, Emma and Lizzie, to join us for a Gingerbread House Decorating Party. Then last year we added our favorite pair of brothers, Garrison and Gavin, to the mix for a canvas-painting Christmas P-art-y. (Find more details about those parties here, here and here.) The children are so full of excitement on the last day of school, and it has helped us to channel their energy into a holiday party. Since the last two parties have been "artsy-crafty," I thought we would switch things up a bit with a Jingle Bell Rock. Let me explain.

The first year Joe and I were married, my sweet 8-year-old cousin Kristi spent a weekend with us during the holidays. We decorated a gingerbread house together, sipped hot chocolate and enjoyed the holiday lights of Nashville. As newlyweds, Joe and I lived on a shoestring and didn't have much money for holiday spending. One of the only Christmas-themed items we got that year was a CD of Christmas music we won from a church party gift exchange. It wasn't really a great CD, but it was the only Christmas one we had, so we listened to it often. One of the most fun impromptu moments of our weekend with Kristi was getting up to dance together to the song "Jingle Bell Rock." The three of us whirled and twirled around our little apartment, laughing and acting silly together. This was such a joyful holiday moment that a family tradition was born. To this day, whenever the song "Jingle Bell Rock" comes on -- whether we are eating dinner, cleaning house or doing homework -- we run from all areas of the house to our family room to dance together. Especially when we are busy cooking or readying the house for company, taking a few minutes to laugh and act silly together can be just what we need to put the jingle back in our step. And you would be surprised how often "Jingle Bell Rock" comes on during the holidays!


Jingle bell, jingle bell, jingle bell rock,
Jingle bells chime in jingle bell time

The children love this holiday tradition. Ten-year-old Christian is usually the first one to notice when "Jingle Bell Rock" comes on the radio, and he has us on our feet within a few beats. So we decided it would be fun to pass on our silly holiday tradition at the kids Christmas party this year with a music-themed Jingle Bell Rock.

Rockin' Activities

  • Holiday Hit List. Before the party, I asked all eight children to tell me their favorite Christmas song but keep it a secret from each other. I compiled their holiday hits onto a CD to play during dinner, and with each new song we went around the table to guess whose favorite it was. This was a great equal-opportunity activity because each child aged 5 to 12 picked a song and each one got to guess their friends' choices. I put a handful of chocolate Jingles at each place, and 9-year-old Gavin had the idea that if you guessed a song's fan correctly, you could eat a candy. Then the next round he suggested that you could eat one if someone said your name during the guessing, and by the third song he had covered all the bases so everyone could eat a piece of chocolate no matter what. The song-guessing game went over even better than I expected, and from now on we will always associate the chosen songs with our special friends.
  • Elf-is Has Entered the Building. Days before the party I found an elf karaoke microphone at Wal-Mart, and I kept it hidden until party time. The microphone had three settings: Christmas song karaoke, your voice and elf voice. We didn't use the mic for an organized group activity, but the children enjoyed passing this around all night.
  • The 12 Breakfasts of Christmas. Longtime readers of A Little Loveliness may know about this fun tradition son Carson started a few years ago. Carson commented that it would be funny to sing about a Pop-Tart in a pear tree, so we started singing, "On the first day of breakfast my mother made for me a Pop-Tart in a pear tree." The game progresses around the table with each person choosing a breakfast. For us, day one is always a Pop-Tart in a pear tree and day five is always five strips of bacon (because we are southern and because it is increasingly funnier with each round to sing "five strips of BAAAA-CON" with gusto). This is another equal-opportunity activity, and it is a lot of fun to remember each breakfast as the song progresses. We sang this song during dessert and had a great time with it.
Other Jingle Bell Rock activities could include making instruments from household items or playing music-themed video games on the Wii. I originally planned to do both, but the kids seemed to enjoy their free play so much that I decided to let them just enjoy their time.

Dancing and prancing in Jingle Bell Square
In the frosty air

For this party I re-purposed some of the decor I used for Christian's Elf #6 surprise breakfast, but changing up the color scheme gave it a completely different feel. Our elf breakfast was mostly red and white, with some splashes of lime green. But a four-pack of pale blue wrapping paper added a breath of fresh air to our rockin' table.

What a bright time
It's the right time
To rock the night away

Plastic tumblers, Winn-Dixie; striped straws, The Sugar Diva; peppermint plates and wrapping paper, Wal-Mart; snowflake napkins, plastic silverware and drum ornaments, Hobby Lobby.

Jingle Bell Rock Menu

Bugles with Jazzy Dip
Classic Drumsticks
Fruit Horns
Black Eyed Peas Medley
Jam Session Biscuits
Rockin' Sundaes
Cherry Limeade Pop

Jingle bell time is a swell time
To go riding in a one-horse sleigh

Taking note of an idea on Pinterest to fill waffle cones with fruit, I decorated sugar cones to look like horns and filled them with fruit salad. I found our recipe for Slow Cooker Sticky Chicken Drumsticks here. The kids gave it rave reviews, so I will definitely make this dish again. I jazzed up traditional black eye peas with some limas, green peas and extra spices. To be honest, the kids didn't really give these a try, but come on -- Black Eyed Peas Medley -- it was worth a shot. Frozen mini-biscuits served hot with jam on the side were worthy of a jam session, and a variety of toppings were great fun for our rockin' sundaes. I offered three flavors of ice cream for our sundae bar: classic vanilla, holiday hit peppermint and rock-n-roll rocky road.

Giddy-up jingle horse, pick up your feet
Jingle around the clock

Purchasing a four-pack of wrapping paper made cutting coordinating bottle labels a snap. I chose bottles of Cherry-Limeade for the color, but placed a tumbler alongside in case the soda wasn't a hit with some of the kids.

Mix and a-mingle in the jingling feet

That's the jingle bell
That's the jingle bell
That's the jingle bell rock!

Each year I want to send the kids home with an ornament commemorating our Christmas party. This year I found a rocking selection at Hobby Lobby. We also sent each family home with a CD of the kids' holiday hits, and, of course, the last track is "Jingle Bell Rock." We also sent each family home with a little bag of Jingles candy, not pictured, with coordinating elf tag and message: "Thank You for Jingle Bell Rocking with  Us! Carson, Christian, Mary Ashley & Emma."

I hope you will consider acting a little bit silly next time you hear "Jingle Bell Rock." It might just put a jingle in your step this holiday season!

And guess what? Seventeen years later, my little cousin Kristi is all grown up and engaged to be married. I was so excited to attend a Christmas shower for her recently, and I'm sure you can guess what I gave her: a CD with "Jingle Bell Rock" so she can continue our holiday tradition with her own family!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Elf Breakfast

One of the highlights of last week's flurry of holiday activities was son Christian's fourth-grade Christmas musical. Christian auditioned for a speaking role and was elated to be cast as Elf #6. He practiced his lines faithfully and reminded us at least once a day that showtime was coming soon. So I decided to surprise the children with an elf-themed breakfast on the day of the big performance.

I readied partyware through the week and set the table after the children went to bed. With such an early morning surprise, I wanted to be as far along with the breakfast as possible.

Peppermint plates and mugs from Wal-Mart were perfect for our festive breakfast -- and a great lunchtime option now that the kids are out of school.

Echoing our red-and-white color scheme, candy cane arrangements added a refreshing touch to the table. To make these I hot glued plastic foam into footed bowls and slipped wrapped candy canes into the foam. I then covered the foam with moss and a trio of ornament picks from Michaels.


Christian's show was called The Reindeer Whisperer, so I was delighted to find a Word graphic for my printables with an elf putting a scarf on a reindeer.

Little pennants on our drinking straws urged Christian to break a candy cane. Seven-year-old Mary Ashley was quite concerned about this message until I explained that it was a holiday take on the actors' phrase "Break a leg."

Reindeer Whisperer Breakfast Menu

Reindeer Yogurt Parfaits
Elf #6 Fruit Skewers
Breakfast Casserole Muffins
Peppermint Hot Chocolate
Milk and Orange Juice

Breakfast Casserole Muffins

Mother and daughter Margie Austin and Julie Knapp have brought these to church on occasion, and Christian has raved about them, so I knew they would be a breakfast of choice for him.

1 pound hot sausage, browned and drained
6 eggs
1 cup biscuit mix
2 cups half & half
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
2 cups grated cheese

Spray 24 muffin cups with cooking spray. Place drained sausage evenly in the cups. Mix eggs, biscuit mix, half & half, salt and pepper together. Pour evenly over the sausage. Top with grated cheese. Bake at 350 degrees for 25 minutes. Serve immediately.

A little gift at each child's place served to commemorate the occasion.

I found these paddle-ball elf favors at Wal-Mart for less than $1 apiece. The kids hardly wanted to eat once they opened these!

This little guy was a find at Caffco Floral Outlet in Montgomery. I quite enjoy having him around!

There was little time to enjoy our breakfast before school, so we enjoyed dinner and a show that evening as we shared leftovers while watching a recording of Christian's performance. There is no doubt about it: Elf #6 is #1 with us!

I still have more holiday happenings to share, so stop in again soon!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Bookclub Christmas Giveaway

Handmade velvet bookmarks were a perfect favor for our recent Book Club Christmas tea party, and I wanted to share one with my dear readers. Pictured above are three of my favorites. Would you like to tuck one of these into a favorite book this winter?

I am sure you will need something good to read during those long winter nights, so I will be surprising the winner with a book as well.

To enter, please leave me a comment below, and tell me which bookmark you prefer of the three pictured above. I hope you can choose a favorite more easily than I! I will announce the winner soon.

Have a blessed day!

Monday, December 19, 2011

Book Club Christmas Menu

I had great intentions to post all the photos from our recent Book Club Christmas last week, but it just did not happen! So today I am back with details of our menu. We kept things light for our mid-afternoon tea party, which seemed to suit everyone fine.

Book Club Christmas Menu

Lemon Cake with Raspberry Jam, Lemon Curd and Buttercream Icing
Fresh Strawberries and Cream Cheese Fruit Dip
Cheddar-Pecan Wafers
Cup of Loveliness Signature Roseberry Tea
Ice Water with Lemon

This three-layer cake received rave reviews. I baked three layers of lemon cake in square pans and stacked them with alternating layers of raspberry jam, buttercream icing and lemon curd. The combination was heavenly! In fact, one guest said she dreamed about eating that cake afterward and told her husband the next morning that he must commission me to make her birthday cake this year. In all fairness, my friend has been on a very strict diet, so it was probably just the sugar talking. But it was nice to hear such a rave review, in any event. I decorated the cake to look like a gift, covering the whole cake with varying sizes of circles piped on with a star tip. Wide green wired ribbon and fresh flowers added the final touches for our cake. I should have added the ribbon after refrigerating the cake for a while so the icing would set, but I was too impatient to complete the design. I kept the flowers in water until shortly before party time, then tucked them into the cake. And who could resist a sweet pink and green gift?

Cheddar-Pecan Wafers

These dainty wafers my friend Missy Jones made for the party provided a nice balance to the sweets on the tea table.

1 pound unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 pound sharp or extra sharp cheddar
1 cup pecans, toasted
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon salt
4 ½ cups all purpose flour

In the bowl of a large food processor, chop pecans until nearly mealy. Remove to a bowl. Cream butter, cheddar, salt and cayenne. Add pecans and flour (add flour in two parts) and mix on “dough” setting. When all ingredients are well incorporated, divide mixture in fourths. Place each quarter of dough on wax paper and form into a log about 1 ½" thick. Place in fridge for about two hours, or until solid. Cut into scant ½" slices and place on parchment-paper lined baking sheet. Bake in a preheated 350 degree oven about 15 minutes, or until edges begin to turn golden brown. Let cool 2 minutes on tray and then remove to cool completely on a wire cooling rack. Store in airtight container up to 3 days. The recipe makes a lot (four logs). If you want to save some, over-wrap the wax paper with plastic wrap and freeze up to one month. Let it thaw overnight in the fridge before slicing to bake.

My friend Sharon Lyle came early to help me with last-minute party details, and she put together this pitcher of water with alternating layers of lemon slices and ice cubes -- a refreshing option for ladies who preferred a cold beverage to hot tea.

Tomorrow, a little giveaway sure to delight my bookloving friends! And assuming no computer problems slow my progress, I have lots of Christmas party ideas to share this week.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

A Book Club Christmas

"Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counselors, and the most patient of teachers." ~Charles W. Eliot

Sunday afternoon I hosted our congregation's ladies book club for a Christmas tea. Our usual practice is to meet quarterly to discuss a book, but since our winter meeting time fell in December this year, we decided to do things a little differently. The holidays are such a busy time, we knew it would be impossible to find a meeting time to accommodate most of our group, so instead we planned a Sunday afternoon Christian fiction book swap. And we will plan our next regular meeting to discuss the book Courting Morrow Little by Laura Frantz in late winter. (You still have time to order your copy!)

Bright colors and vivid patterns dominate my holiday decorating with the children, so I was so happy for an opportunity to plan a rosy pink celebration for my women friends. In truth, I am a pink girl all year long, so I felt right at home in my soft pink wonderland. The Word graphic above was perfect for incorporating into my invitation. The favor idea that inspired the party theme lent itself to a vintage feel, so I looked for elements that would bring a romantic, Old World feel to our celebration. 

This was our sign-up sheet inviting ladies of the congregation to join us for A Book Club Christmas. Styled like a book, complete with ribbon bookmark with little beads at the end, this design is a classic.

In our large congregation, it is customary for hostesses to print directions to their homes, so I printed party details, directions and my phone number on bookmarks finished with pink ribbon. Tucked into a favorite novel after the party, a bookmark invitation can remind guests of our time together. Here is a peek into our dining room before guests arrived Sunday ... .

It's beginning to look a lot like pink Christmas!

For some reason, pink roses can be a bit difficult to find during the holidays, but after stops at several shops, I found these lovely pale pink roses and soft green hydrangeas at Winn-Dixie in Montgomery. This beautiful bouquet was the perfect complement to my Christmas gift from Joe ... .

Isn't this china breathtaking? I simply adore it. I discovered this pattern, Norwich by Royal Embassy, at a local antique mall and could not get it out of my mind. The 48-piece service for six was reasonably priced, but I was hesitant to ask Joe if I could purchase it because I know that I do not really need it -- except in the way that I always need new china. (It is a sickness that runs in my family, affecting three generations of us ladies starting with my grandmother.) But anyway, when I did work up the courage to bring up the china and said it could be my whole Christmas, Joe said yes! Several of Sunday's party guests also enjoy collecting china patterns, so I was able to pass along their compliments on his fine gift giving.

"Books are not made for furniture, but there is nothing else that so beautifully furnishes a house." ~ Henry Ward Beecher

Wrapped in dust jackets of scrapbook paper and wrapping paper and adorned with soft pink ribbons and a glittery ornament, books added volumes of interest to the tablescape.

And glittered ornament picks from Michaels added sparkle to the table and garland that draped the mirror.


A soft vignette on the table.

This trio of trees added height to the narrow table that sits behind the dining room table. I found the white footed pots, topiary forms and moss at Caffco Floral Outlet in Montgomery. I hot glued the moss to the plastic foam, then added ribbon and bead embellishments with floral pins. The white paper flowers came from Michaels; I also used those to accent nearby pillar candles. I plan to keep  these topiaries and change out decorations to fit future party themes.

Since we met mid-afternoon Sunday, I kept the menu simple with a couple of choices and a show-stopping cake decorated to look like a present. I will share more details about this cake and the rest of the menu in my next post.

Roses and ornaments added festive touches to the serving dishes we used for our tea party.

We slipped into the sitting room to share refreshments and swap books. Then I invited each guest to choose a custom bookmark. Yesterday's post tells a little more about how to make this fun craft.

Each bookmark was a little work of art, and it was interesting to see which one each lady chose. Here are a few of the remaining styles. Many of the bookmarks featured Swarovski crystal beads, and many were finished with a little silver charm, like the pink and lavender bookmarks on the end. Several of the bookmarks were finished with one large charm, like the cherub bookmark on cream ribbon. I searched Word for vintage graphics, sized them to fit the charms, printed them on photo paper, placed them in the frame and covered them with a jewelry solution that gives the charms a clear sheen. The lavender bookmark with tiny oval frame is one of my favorites. It is actually a still from Bright Star, a movie about the poet John Keats and the love of his life, Fanny Brawne. I hope each bookmark chosen Sunday finds its place among treasured books.

We had a small group Sunday, but the intimate setting was enjoyable for visiting with dear friends. Left to right, Nia, Tina, Nancy, Missy, Margie, Haley, Sharon and Lynn. I enjoyed slowing down to share a cup of tea with these sweet ladies and hope they were blessed by our afternoon together.

Still to come, details of our Book Club Christmas menu and a little gift for you.

(Find more details of our menu here and our velvet bookmark favors here.)

"Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counselors, and the most patient of teachers." ~ Charles W. Eliot

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