I've been neighbors with a few Brazilians; they have been warm, kind people who have a strong affinity for desserts made with cooked sweetened condensed milk, or 'dulce de leche'.  There's a plum-caramel filling for cakes, another cake filling made with crushed pineapple and the caramel, and that's just the tip of the iceberg.  

One Christmas my Brazilian neighbor Celia brought over a plate of these creamy, sugar-coated dulce de leche balls.  When I next saw her, I asked for the recipe and what they were called.  She shrugged her shoulders, then said, "little bears, I guess".  This is a simplified version of hers, which contained strained egg yolks and 'crema media' (half-and-half), but the results are just as delicious.  Best of all, these are cooked and ready to shape within ten minutes of starting!

Ositos
1 (14 oz) can sweetened condensed milk
unsweetened cocoa powder
about 1/2 cup sugar, for rolling


Pour the sweetened condensed milk in an ungreased, very large microwave-safe bowl.  Cover the top with plastic wrap  to help avoid boilovers: this boils much higher than you would expect!, Microwave it for 2 minutes.  Stir.  Microwave for 2 more minutes.  Stir, scraping sides down.  Repeat in 2-minute intervals for a total of either 6 or 8 minutes, stirring every two minutes.  It should thicken and darken some. To see if it has cooked enough, drop a little in a cupful of icy water, then pull out after about five seconds.  However hard it gets is how hard it will be when completely cool.  It needs to be able to hold its shape.  Put the sugar in a cereal bowl and set aside.

With buttered hands, pinch off a bit and roll in a ball, about 3/4" across.To get the brown side, drop into unsweetened cocoa powder, then pick it up and drop it  into the sugar.  After you have a few in there, roll or toss to coat, then set on another dish.

Makes 30-36 balls, about 3/4" each.
 
 
Are you craving a moist, flavorful cupcake?  Maybe you'd like gourmet cupcakes to serve your sweetie on Valentine's Day?
The 'extras' added here- coconut extract, shredded coconut, lime juice and zest- make these cupcakes Coconut-Lime.  Feel free to substitute whatever other flavors you like.  Any flavor cake mix will work.  You could make a pretty pink-speckled frosting for Valentine's Day by using one mashed strawberry in the frosting.  Since it's contributing liquid, omit the lime juice.


Cupcakes:
1/2 cup white cake mix
1/4 cup water
a little coconut extract (about 1/16th tsp)- or other flavor, optional

Put a paper cupcake liner in each of two custard cups or microwaveable mugs.  Beat the mix, water, and coconut extract together until smooth.  Divide between the two liners. Microwave each one for about 35-45 seconds or until there's just a small wet-looking spot in the center.  Let cool.

A very simple filling is a spoonful of vanilla Greek yogurt.  Poke a hole in the cupcake with a spoon, lift the torn part up, and drop about a tablespoon of  Greek yogurt.  Jam is a good filling, as is pie filling or frosting. Just use less of these because they're so sweet.

Frosting:
1 Tbsp. butter, softened
1 Tbsp. sour cream (or Greek yogurt, cream cheese, or butter, depending on the flavor you want)
dash of salt
a little vanilla (1/16th tsp)
about 2 tsp. lime juice (or lemon if that's all you have.  I used lemon juice and added a drop or two of lime essential oil.)
powdered sugar (about 1 cup)

Beat together the butter, sour cream, and salt.  Stir in the vanilla and lime juice.  Add 1/2 cup powdered sugar and stir until smooth.  If it's not thick enough yet, add more powdered sugar until it is.

Spread on the cooled cupcakes, then top with some toasted coconut and finely grated lime zest.

If you want chocolate frosting, simply add 2 Tbsp. cocoa powder to it.
 
 
While standing in line at the supermarket one day before Christmas, I picked up a cooking magazine that had some gorgeous cookies on the cover.  As I studied the picture, the cashier noticed, laughed a little, and said, "they have nice pictures, but do YOUR cookies ever look like that?"

She was shocked when I answered, "Um, actually, yes."

You don't need to be a professional baker.  You don't even need fancy decorating equipment, though I really appreciate a good pastry bag and frosting tips.  (If you don't have these- you can buy a small set for under $10 at Walmart, ShopKo or hobby stores- a ziptop freezer bag with a corner snipped off will work.)   

The trick to making those beautiful, glossy cookies is to use two consistencies of frosting- one thin, one thick, and to give yourself enough time to let one layer dry a bit before adding the next.  The thin frosting becomes your canvas, the thicker one is used to make the details.  Make it easy on yourself by only mixing two or three colors.  Rather than using the liquid food color drops, try paste or gel food colors.  They are much easier to work with because a little goes a long way and they won't make your frosting runny. 
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The thin frosting can be as simple as powdered sugar and water, or if you want the surface to be shiny when dry, make Royal Icing. A regular batch produces a thick icing; to get the thin frosting, mix in water a little at a time to get the right consistency. The recipe below is for the Royal Icing, which also dries very hard, making your cookies a little less likely to get damaged.  This is the same frosting I use on gingerbread houses.

Royal Icing  (thick frosting)
3 egg whites (use clean eggs with absolutely no cracks in them)
1 16-oz bag or box of powdered sugar (about 4 3/4 cups)
1/2 tsp. cream of tartar
1/8 tsp. salt
1 tsp. vanilla, lemon, or almond extract

Put everything in a large, absolutely grease-free mixing bowl.  Beat on high speed using an electric mixer until very stiff, about 7-10 minutes.  Use right away and keep the bowl covered at all times with a damp kitchen towel, to avoid drying it out.  Makes about 3 cups.  To color it, divide into smaller bowls and stir gel or paste food color into it.  For the cookies below, I divided into three bowls; one remained white, one was tinted pink, the last colored red.

Thin frosting
Put the amount of frosting you think you need, already colored, in a bowl.  Add water a little bit at a time, stirring until smooth.  The right consistency is when a little bit of frosting drizzled from a spoon takes from 5-10 seconds to disappear back into the rest.

Spread a thin layer of frosting on each cookie.  If adding sprinkles or edible glitter, add it while the frosting is wet so they'll stick.  Let the cookies sit until a crust starts to form over the frosting, then decorate using the thick frosting in a pastry bag.    

If you're new to frosting, tips, and pastry bags, Wilton has a great getting-started page
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Start with white as the base, let dry. Next use pink with a basketweave tip like #47. Finish off with tip #3 grids and squiggle border.
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Just like the previous one except simpler: white base, let dry, add tip #3 grids in pink, then a tip #3 red squiggle border.
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Or how about that same white background, but using only red and tip #3?
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White base, sprinkle with edible glitter, dry. Add tip #3 dots in white, then a red squiggle border also using tip #3.
 
 
It's that time of year again!  

I started homeschooling one of my children just a couple weeks ago (taking a bite of the elephant at one time- this is also the reason I haven't been posting as often), so I'm looking forward to making some adorable things with her for Valentines' Day-  and not having the normal glut of candy (hurray!)  

My mom wasn't much for celebrating many things- but we always woke up Valentine morning to find a giant (to us kids) cookie with a pretty border and our name written in flourishes of pink frosting.  

Below are some of the ideas I love for this year, some are mine and some are from other sites.  There's also this post for more ideas, including how to make heart-shaped muffins with a regular muffin tin, some liners, and several marbles.
 
 
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To make a heart-shaped cupcake or muffin, fill cupcake liners with batter, then put a marble on one side, between the liner and the pan.  This makes the top of the heart.  These muffins are made with frozen cranberries, to up the 'Valentines' factor.

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The baked muffin.  It will look even more like a heart it you strategically put on a drizzle of glaze, or frosting, for a cupcake.

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I love making people smile by cooking them something they like, and I love the peace of mind I get from 'shopping' for the ingredients in my own pantry.

My family’s Valentine’s tradition, as a child, was that my mom would make us each a big heart-shaped sugar cookie, frost it red or pink, then decorate it with our name and a pretty border.  We got those every year (often for breakfast!), and loved them.  For most of my growing-up years, our heart-shaped cookie cutter was formed out of an empty tuna can.  I remember being fascinated as I watched her shape a replacement cutter one year, amazed that this thing we’d normally throw away could turn into a useful item.  Especially something that would create our much-anticipated heart cookie!



If you’re looking for something new to do for Valentine’s this year, here are some ideas (I borrowed heavily from Living On a Dime, links below):

-For any food, ask yourself, “could I cut/shape it into a heart or make it red?” You can use food coloring, or if you like the natural route, use beet puree or beet juice, raspberry, strawberry, or cherry juice to color things.  They each give a different version of red.

-Make heart-shaped food:  pizza (crust recipe here), muffins or cupcakes (use the marble trick), biscuits (recipe here, use hands or a cookie cutter), heart-shaped cinnamon rolls (individual or cooked in a heart pan), Rice Krispie treats, cookies, toast, brownies, red Jello cut with cookie cutters or set up in a heart-shaped cake pan, slices of cheese, pancakes.  If you want, write their name on these with frosting, whipped cream, chocolate, or chocolate chips.

-If you don’t have a heart cookie cutter for the ideas above, trace a heart onto cardstock, cardboard, or a whipped topping lid.  Cut out, then  use that as a guide for your knife.  Or cut off the top and bottom from a tuna fish can, then use pliers to shape it into a heart.  

-Use pretty place settings.  Or decorate paper plates using red and pink markers.  Use little paper doilies under fancy glasses, or use bigger ones under a plate.

-Serve foods that are red, maybe even a whole meal’s worth! – enchiladas, red Jello, strawberries, beets, maraschino cherries, cherry cobbler or pie, red juice, toast with strawberry jam, tomato soup, apple slices, watermelon, cranberries, spaghetti and meatballs 

-Decorate with a little construction-paper hearts- stack pages so you can cut out multiples.

-A kiss on their pillow- cut out a paper heart, glue a kiss to it, and leave it on your kids’ or sweetie’s pillow.  Simple but effective!

-Buy a candy bar  or make and wrap bar cookies, then make your own label for it.  You could just draw hearts on it, or you could write a personalized message or a cute little poem. 

-Try making just one part of the meal special- their favorite main dish, dessert, OR side dish.

-Make some homemade candy, instead of purchasing it.


-If you want to make a cake or cupcakes, try my favorite chocolate frosting, or the any-flavor basic frosting.

-Send your hubby or kids on a Valentine’s Treasure Hunt: http://www.livingonadime.com/valentines-on-a-dime/

For more ideas, also see:
http://www.livingonadime.com/more-valentines-day-ideas/http://www.livingonadime.com/valentines-day-ideas/
Valentine’s dessert recipes http://www.livingonadime.com/valentines-day-recipes/