Tuesday, December 22, 2015

How to Host a Christmas Cookie Swap with Delicious Citrus Cookies

What’s your favorite part of Christmas? Is it the family time with relatives, buying and sharing gifts, the beautiful holiday music, the special seasonal activities and traditions? Or could it be one of my favorite things about the holidays…the delicious food?

As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, I absolutely love to bake holiday cookies, and have developed quite a list of favorites over time. In fact, every year I try to make an assortment of especially pretty cookies, which I package up into pretty bags or boxes, and gift to teachers, neighbors, and other friends and acquaintances. I always bake a variety of flavors and types, and I like to make the presentation a little fancy. I think my favorite year was the one when I bought white paperboard boxes and my daughter drew elaborate designs all over them in colored pens (she’s quite the artist, and spent much more time on it than I ever would have!)

However, I have to admit that this task can take up quite a bit of time at a season when I’m already just so busy. Have you ever considered hosting a holiday cookie swap? I went to one once, and I keep meaning to host my own. This is a fun way to get in some social time and to pack up beautiful cookie gifts to distribute while not actually having to do all the baking yourself!

To host a swap, send out invitations to 5-8 friends a couple of weeks before, explaining that you’ll all be bringing cookies so you can share them and make up varied cookie boxes, bags, and tins for friends. Ask them to bring a dozen cookies for each attendee, plus some extra for sampling. Coordinate to make sure you’re not duplicating types of cookie. If you like, you can provide simple bags, boxes, tins, tags, and twine, or ask your guests to bring them.

When guests arrive, you’ll have a tasty snack already available (just add coffee and tea, or wine or after-dinner drinks) and everyone can socialize, pack up their cookie gifts, and enjoy themselves rather than spending time finding recipes, buying many different ingredients, and dirtying many dishes making multiple types of cookie.

So what kind of cookies will you bring to this year’s party or cookie swap or just bake to stock your own family’s cookie jar? While I enjoy traditional favorites, like sugar cookies, my mother-in-law’s nutmeg logs, and my mom’s famous pecan tartlets, I like to make sure to include some delicious citrus-flavored cookies as well. I think the flavor of oranges, tangerines, and lemons adds some much-needed brightness, freshness and sparkle to the holiday platter. Why not take advantage of these traditional (and in-season) holiday fruit?

But which citrus cookie recipe to choose? There are so many incredible choices. We’ve collected a few for you.

  • Take a look at this gorgeously elegant Orange Shortbread with Dark Chocolate and Pistachios. If you want to knock your gift recipients’ socks off, these are one excellent option! I love how these combine the rich taste of chocolate with the aroma of orange, and the pale green pistachios really give it a Christmassy look.
  • For something a bit homier, go with these Super Soft Clementine Cookies, which can also be made with other citrus, like oranges or tangerines.
  • Or how about these dainty Lacy Almond-Orange Cookies, which feature the haunting flavor of anise along with orange zest? Cookies like these won’t be on just any cookie platter.
  • What could be more festive than these adorable cranberry-orange pinwheels, which star two traditional holiday flavors? After chilling the dough, you just slice and bake—really easy.
  • These soft, frosted orange-ricotta cookies are a tried and true Italian Christmas favorite. The beautiful bits of orange zest in the icing add that real orange flavor!
  • Baking gluten-free? Oranges and almonds are a time-tested, classic combination, and this simple gluten-free (egg- and grain-free, too) recipe for Orange Almond Cookies will meet your recipient’s needs while also tasting delicious.
  • Finally, my daughter, who has interesting tastes for a middle-schooler, thinks it’s just not Christmas without homemade biscotti. It’s true that they’re very tasty! I suggest these orange-almond biscotti dipped in chocolate, which will add a sophisticated touch to any cookie plate.

Enjoy your holiday and your delicious cookies!

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Friday, December 18, 2015

Gorgeous, Easy Holiday Decorating with Florida Citrus

I’m not quite sure how it happened, but Christmas is really sneaking up on us. I’ve got my tree up, the holiday music is playing, and I’m about to start baking up a storm (I love holiday cookies). Don’t talk to me about shopping, though!

Every year, my family and I make holiday ornaments and decorations of one kind or another. Sometimes they’re just for one season, like the time we strung popcorn on garlands (not that easy!), or the fragile paper snowflakes we make and hang in the windows every year. Others stay on our tree for years, like the sweet, glitter-crusted cardboard ornaments my children created when they were toddlers.

This year, I decided to make use of my lovely, ripe winter citrus in my holiday decorating. You might enjoy trying this, too, for a simple, yet beautiful Christmas look. As you may know, oranges have long been associated with the holidays. It used to be very common for children to receive an orange in the toe of their stockings, back when fresh citrus was more of a costly luxury. In Germany, children still traditionally receive oranges, nuts, and candy in their shoes on December 6, which is celebrated as St. Nicholas’s Day. And many of us just naturally associate the beautiful color and fresh, sweet taste of citrus with holiday treats and gifting.

After seeing the idea showcased on blogs and Pinterest, I decided to try drying some orange slices to hang in my windows and on my Christmas tree this year. I started with seedless navel oranges (citrus with seeds are harder to handle and don’t dry as well) and sliced them a little more than ¼” thick. Try to slice your oranges as evenly as you can, or you will have problems later with them drying unevenly.

A number of blogs suggested drying the orange slices directly on the oven rack, but I was worried that they would fall through, so I took the cooling racks I use for baked goods and put them on the oven racks, then placed the slices on those. This worked perfectly. I found that a temperature of about 215 degrees was about right, but your oven may vary.

The oranges took about 2.5 hours to dry all the way. You’ll want them to be dry and leathery, with no juice remaining, but not brown. Watch them carefully toward the end.

(By the way, I took advantage of this long, slow oven baking period and also dried some orange peel to make into citrus salt and citrus sugar! You can read more about how to make these gourmet items here.)

The finished dried orange slices have a lovely translucent quality that will remind you of stained glass. They look beautiful hanging in a window, strung onto a garland or a wreath or on a tree. Here you can see an ornament I made on my tree and a simple ornament with a cinnamon stick tied on hanging in my window. By the way, you can also store these dried slices and enjoy the orange flavor they add to a cup of hot tea.

These lovely, inexpensive natural ornaments are equally at home among rustic décor or in a more elegant environment. Check out these more elaborate variations, prettied up with dried flowers and ribbons. Or here’s one with cranberries and cinnamon sticks.

Not feeling up to drying slices? There are still so many ways to incorporate beautiful oranges, tangerines, and other citrus into your holiday décor. There’s not much simpler than placing a bright cloth, a few sprigs of pine or fir and some oranges or tangerines on a table, but it looks warm and beautiful. Or try the slightly more sophisticated look of tangerines, vintage ornaments, and fir or spruce boughs on a decorative plate—a simple yet elegant centerpiece at low cost.

Of course, you’ll also want to enjoy delicious treats and beverages made from oranges, grapefruits, tangerines and other citrus fruits during this holiday season!

Look for other posts coming up soon with festive recipes featuring fresh citrus. Happy holidays!

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Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Want to See What “Online Shopping” Looked Like in 1986? Florida Fruit Shippers Was There.

It’s Black Friday as I write this post, and I don’t know about you, but I have no plans to go anywhere near a physical store. First of all, I know I’d never find a parking spot, and the crowds and general stress (not to mention those Christmas carols playing over and over) are too much for me. I’ve always been happy to sit this one out at home.

However, I will start my shopping this weekend—from the comfort of my own home, and possibly in my PJs. While I don’t want to brave the stores, I’ve got no quibble with venturing online to shop, and I bet you don’t either. Statistics show that Americans today do about half of their holiday shopping online. I’d say I personally do about 75%! It’s just so much easier.

But can you remember when online shopping first started getting off the ground? What was the first thing you bought through a computer, and when? Amazingly, here at Florida Fruit Shippers, our owner and founder, Rick Del Greco, identified the incredible potential of online shopping over 25 years ago. That’s right—we’re early adopters here at Florida Fruit Shippers!

In fact, we recently unearthed a tape from 1986 of a news segment about this “new” way to shop. It features Rick and our beautiful oranges and grapefruits. We think you’ll enjoy going back in time to the ‘80s, when clothes and computers definitely looked a little bit different:

Here’s another clip from the Today show about the CompuServe Mall where an expert has to explain to a confused-looking Bryant Gumbel and Jane Pauley how online shopping works. They seem amazed! (Don’t forget to show these to your kids and grandkids for a really good reaction!)

And in my favorite clip , this big question gets asked: “Is home shopping just a fad, or is it here to stay?” Well…what do you think? (Look for a fun big-ticket item from Florida Fruit Shippers at the 3:42 mark.)
CompuServe ad from the February, 1985 issue
of Online Today [source]

As you saw in the first clip, Florida Fruit Shippers started offering online citrus ordering way back in 1986, through the very earliest major online shopping venue in the U.S.: the CompuServe Electronic Mall. At the time, there were less than 30 merchants selling products! CompuServe was the first company offering commercial Internet and online services in the United States. To use their electronic mall, customers scrolled through a list of companies (other early adopters included big retailers like JC Penney, Waldenbooks and Sears) and read text descriptions of the products. Of course, no images were available, as this was well before web browsers. Check out some ads for the Mall from back in the day here, including an image of the entire directory of companies selling online in 1984.

Just like today, though, when a customer was ready to buy, he or she entered a credit card number, and the product (maybe a basket of delicious navel oranges?) shipped out the next day. The service worked really well for Florida Fruit Shippers because it gave people around the country and the world easy access to a special, local product that ships beautifully. Online ordering increased our business dramatically in just a few short years.

Our Christmas Tree Deluxe gift basket
continues to be a holiday classic!

How did Florida Fruit Shippers have the foresight to get into the online space so early? Owner Rick reports that he was always pretty interested in computers and computing, and bought himself a Timex home computer early on. He saw an ad for the CompuServe Mall in a computer magazine, thought it would be a great thing for FFS to try, and the rest is history. FFS continued to partner with CompuServe through 1996, when we started our first stand-alone website. Rick remembers how excited everyone was back then when we finally were able to feature (small, low-resolution) pictures of our beautiful citrus!

Today, of course, we’re no longer the only company offering online ordering of gift citrus. But we think you’ll find that our emphasis on customer service and our hand-selected, top-quality oranges, tangerines, grapefruits, and honeybells still set us apart.

Just like the customer featured in that first video, I love having the option of “ordering flowers at 3 am.” I bet you do too. This holiday season, I’m taking a minute to appreciate how far technology has come (no more scrolling through a bunch of tiny green text!) while enjoying the leisurely convenience of shopping online.

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