Tree Trimming Treats

The first weekend of December brings an annual tradition in my home: the arrival and decorating of our Christmas tree. We get ours from the university forestry club and half the fun is finding ways to stuff it into our really fairly small hatchback without making driving it back home impossible. Then we get it set up in the living room while the dog lets us know we're insane. After all, we don't let him even bring in a stick!

Once it's been watered and given several hours to relax into position, it's time for us to decorate! Yet another tradition involved in that are lots of delicious snacks to feed and entertain us while we transform our tree from evergreen to every-color-in-the-rainbow! Sometimes we get so caught up in the task, all we have for dinner are those snacks. Fortunately, we specialize in a nice variety that's fun and festive and just fine as dinner but once a year!

I love including popcorn in our snack options because it's easy to eat and tastes great. But for tree trimming regular popcorn just won't do. That's why options like Chipotle Bacon Caramel Popcorn exist! It's every bit as wonderful as the name implies and surprisingly easy to make.

Chipotle Bacon Caramel Popcorn

  • 5 slices thick-cut bacon -- cooked, crumbled, and bacon grease reserved
  • 1/2 cup popcorn kernels
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 3/4 teaspoon ground chipotle pepper
  • 3 cups white granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon fine sea salt

Prepare the bacon and set aside, reserving the bacon grease rendered during the cooking process. In a large saucepan or pot with a lid, heat 2-3 tablespoons of the reserved bacon grease over medium-high heat. Add the popcorn kernels, cover, and keep the saucepan moving until all of the kernels have popped, about 4 minutes. Transfer the popped popcorn to the large prepared bowl, removing any unpopped kernels.

In a small bowl, whisk together the baking soda and cayenne pepper. In a medium saucepan, combine the sugar, 3 tablespoons of the reserved bacon grease, salt, and 1/2 cup water. Cook over high heat, without stirring, until the mixture becomes a light, thickened caramel, about 10 minutes. Remove from the heat and carefully whisk in the baking soda mixture (the mixture will bubble up). Quickly fold in the bacon bits. Pour the caramel over the popcorn and toss, like a salad, until all of the popcorn is evenly coated with the caramel.

Pour the popcorn onto a large baking pan and quickly flatten and separate it into small pieces while it is still warm. Cool to room temperature, about 15 minutes. Once it is cool, store it in a well-sealed airtight container.

  • Yields: About 10 cups
  • Preparation Time: About 15 minutes, plus cooling time

If you are looking for something with a bit more protein, try these clever Taco Almonds. Packed with all the flavor you'd expect on a plate, these nuts are perfect for snacking on while hanging tinsel or testing lights!

Taco Almonds

Put the butter into the bottom of your slow cooker, place the lid on your slow cooker, and turn to low. Heat while you assemble your ingredients and mince the garlic. Add the almonds, garlic, and taco seasoning. Stir until everything is well-coated. Set the lid on your slow cooker so that it's tilted and air can easily escape. Cook on low for 2-3 hours, stirring every 20-30 minutes, until the nuts are lightly toasted and very fragrant. Serve warm or cool.

  • Yields: 4 cups
  • Preparation Time: About 3 hours

Whipped Chèvre is a great dip to have on hand for your favorite crackers, chips, and crudités. What's more, if there are any leftovers, it's great spread on a lightly toasted bagel in the morning. Hooray for the gift that keeps on giving.

Whipped Chèvre Dip

Crumble the goat cheese into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Whisk the goat cheese to break it up for about 1 minute. Add three tablespoons of the heavy cream and mix it until it's smooth. Add the remaining heavy cream and mix until firm peaks form. It will be light and fluffy.

Add the everything but the bagel seasoning and the dried dill and fold to combine. Taste the dip and adjust adding more seasoning if you prefer. Swirl the dip into a serving bowl and garnish with a sprinkling of the everything but the bagel seasoning. Chill until ready to serve.

Serve with crackers, chips, cut vegetables, and just about anything else that loves cheese. Makes an amazing addition to a baked potato too!

  • Yields: About 2 cups
  • Preparation Time: 8 minutes

Lest you think I was going to leave you without a chocolate goodie for your tree trimming duties, fear not! I've saved the best for last. These Triple Chocolate Cookies are hands down my favorite chocolate cookie on the planet. They take a bit to make, but are worth every second of it. Watch out - you might find yourself asking Santa to leave you a tin of them under the tree you've just decorated!

Triple Chocolate Cookies

  • 12 teaspoons chocolate hazelnut spread (or 1 teaspoon per cookie)
  • 1/2 cup butter, room temperature
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon corn starch
  • 1/2 cup cocoa powder
  • 1/4 cup dark chocolate chips (optional)

Line a baking sheet with waxed paper. Drop the spread by individual teaspoonfuls onto the waxed paper, making sure there is space between each spoonful. Form them into slightly flattened patties and place the sheet into the freezer for at least an hour and up to a day.

Meanwhile, combine the butter and sugars and blend with a mixer until light and fluffy. Add the extract and egg and blend again. Add the flour, baking soda, corn starch, and cocoa powder and blend to form a dense, chocolatey dough. Place the dough in the refrigerator to chill until you are ready to bake the cookies. Cover the dough with plastic wrap if it will be more than an hour before baking.

Preheat the oven to 350° F.

To assemble the cookies, take one frozen chocolate hazelnut spread patty and carefully wrap it in about 2 tablespoons of the chilled chocolate cookie dough. I like to form a ball with the dough and then flatten it into a disc and wrap that around the frozen chocolate hazelnut spread patty. Then roll it gently between your hands to close any seams and place on a baking sheet covered with a silicone baking mat. Since these cookies spread quite a bit while baking, limit yourself to six cookies per baking sheet. After the cookies are placed on the sheet, press 3-5 chocolate chips onto the top of each cookie, if desired. It is recommended that you put the unused dough and spread patties in the refrigerator and freezer, respectively, between assembling a batch of cookies and removing them to a wire rack to cool.

Place the cookies in the oven and bake for approximately 10 minutes before removing them and allowing them to cool on the baking sheet for 5 minutes before removing them to a wire rack to cool completely. Store the cookies in a tightly sealed container for up to a week, though I doubt they will last that long!

  • Yields: 12 cookies
  • Preparation Time: At least 2 hours and up to 2 days, with much pausing for chilling involved

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