When I was growing up, I remember being close with the neighbors on our suburban street. There was Kevin, who lived across the street whose mother was an opera singer who made the best popcorn balls ever, Troy who lived next door to us, a boy whose father was a doctor and a boy who at one point got in a fight with Brother #1, next door to us on the other side was an older couple who used to talk to us through the fence (like Wilson on Home Improvement). Around the corner from us lived my best friend Lily and a few other school mates from school. Around another corner was Brother #1's best friend George, and invariably on summer nights we would all get on our bikes and ride around the block, shouting and playing cops and robbers until our respective mothers all called us home. I enjoyed feeling this sense of neighborhood.
Since buying our home, I've been thinking of ways to connect with the neighbors. The ones on either side of us are different from us. On our right is a family with older children, and these folks tend to keep me up late at least once a month with their raucous talking and pot smoking ways. Our walls are pretty close to one another so I hear their laughter and shouts and their dog also barks wildly and sometimes keeps me up. (I actually have called the police on them on more than one occasion.) They aren't my favorite people as neighbors, but they do live next to us and we share a fence. On our left is an older gentlemen and his son. Once again we share a fence and these two gentlemen are always cheerful and chipper when we walk by their house, waving to us and giving us a smile. I'm not sure why a family of two men has four cars, but that's another story.
We do know two families very well in our neighborhood, and they live around the corner from us. One of the families has my "emergency" babysitter in house, which is wonderful in case I want to run somewhere really quickly and have a responsible person come to my house. The other family has two children, similar in age to ours and are easy playmates and easy fun when we are walking the neighborhood. We've had parties and get-togethers and it's wonderful knowing them and being able to have fun with them.
I've been talking to Sons and Daughters about how to give to others and we talked about whom we would like to share something with during this holiday season. They definitely wanted to give something to the two families that they knew well, and they also had this idea of giving something to the two homes who have the best lights in our neighborhood. I thought it was a good idea and suggested that perhaps we might want to give to the people who live directly next door to us, and they were excited. The girls made cards for everyone, I made two kinds of bar cookies to pass out and we packed them up in the stroller and made some deliveries today.
The kids were on their scooter and mommy behind, pushing the stroller loaded with boxes. And I have to say - it was FUN. We took on the challenge of delivering to COMPLETE strangers first, going to the two homes with the best Christmas lights. The kids were very excited to SEE who was behind the lights and rang the doorbell. I had to do all the talking of course (suddenly talkative kids become very shy kids) and simply presented the cookies and the card saying, "My children have gotten so much joy from your lights and they wanted to say thank you." The first house a very tall gentleman (I heard Daughter #2 mutter, "He's a giant") came to the door and when I said my little statement, broke out into a huge smile and thanked us. The kids hopped on their scooters and we went to the second light house, where again, they were thankful and even said, "You didn't have to do this." The two neighbors to either side also were wonderfully warm and kind and when we delivered to our good friends, it was just loads of fun.
Son and Daughters really enjoyed the experience of just handing out treats and cards simply for the sheer enjoyment and it was fun for me too.
If you want to do a mass handout of treats, I have learned that bar cookies are really the way to go. I decided to explore a non-nut caramel bar cookie and came up with this fantastic concoction that is really good. (I'm going to enter it into Saveur's Cookie Contest.) Pastry crust, caramel pretzel topping, with a salty sweet finish. You can't go wrong! Bar cookies make for easy handouts because it's one tray, you can cut it into various sizes (depending on your need) and it's one pan. Make some of these, and hand them out to the neighborhood, and let's see what happens when you extend yourself just a bit.
Caramel Pretzel Bars
Makes 32 bars (large ones, or 64 smaller ones)
Sweet Pastry Crust
1 ¼ cup all-purpose flour
¼ teaspoon salt
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
⅓ cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Position rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 350. Line a 9X13 baking pan with parchment paper or grease bottom and sides very well. In a small bowl, whisk together flour and salt; set aside.
In the bowl of an electric mixer using the paddle attachment (or a bowl that you use your hand mixer with), beat the butter and brown sugar at medium speed until combined, about 1 minute. Beat in the vanilla extract. At low speed, add the flour mixture and mix just until the mixture is crumbly, 10 to 15 seconds.
Pat the dough evenly into the bottom of the prepared pan. Prick the dough well with a fork. Bake for 15 to 18 minutes, until golden brown around the edges. Allow to cool slightly as you prepare topping.
1 ½ sticks unsalted butter
1 ¼ cups light brown sugar
¼ cup maple syrup
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup heavy cream
6 ½ cups small pretzel twists, lightly crushed
In a large saucepan, combine the butter, brown sugar, honey, syrup, and salt and cook over moderate heat, stirring, until foamy and slightly thickened, about 10 minutes. Add cream and cook, stirring occasionally, until a candy thermometer inserted in the caramel registers 240°F (soft ball stage), about 11 minutes longer. Add the pretzels, quickly incorporating it into the caramel. Pour the filling over the crust, spreading it evenly. Bake for about 15 minutes, until the topping is bubbling. Let cool completely. Remove onto a cutting board. Cut into bars and serve.
The candy thermometer I want to get