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Culinary arts

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Mom always told you not to play with your food, but Christmas is the one time of year when you can ignore that rule.

Grown-ups and kids hunker over gingerbread houses, applying gobs of royal icing to roofs and windows. Hershey's Kisses are stuck onto Styrofoam cones to make Christmas trees, and candy canes and gumdrops are turned into reindeer and snowmen.

The most important thing to keep in mind when creating food crafts, says Joanne Hoff, an associate director of Kraft Kitchens, is: "Keep it simple."

The holidays are stressful enough without worrying about creating the perfect candy wreath or intricate marzipan sleigh. "It should be fun. It shouldn't be about frustration," she says.

For starters, be realistic, Hoff says. A beautiful photo in a magazine may lend inspiration, but keep in mind that the magazine employed experts -- professional cooks, food stylists and photographers -- whose jobs it is to create works of art.

To improve your chances of creating your own work of art, practice. Write or draw decorations on paper before you attempt to make the same designs with icing on your projects, Hoff says.

Susan Dosier, executive food editor for Southern Living magazine, advises aspiring food artists to be sure they allow enough time to make their craft. Some projects require work to be done in stages over the course of several days to allow icing to dry. Read the directions carefully to plan the time you need.

And because free time is so rare during the holidays, it's a good idea to do craft projects with family or friends. Not only can you share the work, you can share the fun of being together. Just keep in mind to have patience with children who may not have the attention span or the dexterity for some projects.

Here are a few family-friendly projects to get you started. All can be done in less than an hour; some can be completed in minutes. And all can be eaten when you're done looking at them.

Crunchy Snowmen

1 cup white chocolate chips
8-inch pretzel rods
mini chocolate chips
orange decorator gel
fruit leather
gummy rings
gumdrops

Melt white chocolate chips in the top of a double boiler (see note). One at a time, dip one end of pretzel rod into chocolate and use a knife to spread the chocolate two-thirds of the way down the rod.

Set the pretzels on a sheet of waxed paper and press mini chocolate chips for the eyes and buttons. Use gel to add a carrot nose. When the chocolate has hardened, stand pretzels in a mug or glass. Tie on strips of fruit leather for scarves. For hats, stretch a gummy ring over the narrow end of a gumdrop and secure it on the pretzel rod with a dab of melted chocolate.

Note: Chocolate also can be melted in a microwave.

-- Family Fun magazine

Graham Greeting Cards

Makes 18

18 whole (5-inch-by-2 1/2-inch) graham crackers

decorating icing, any color

assorted candies for decorating

Place whole graham cracker on clean, flat surface. Use icing to write holiday greeting on each cracker; decorate with assorted candies.

Note: This craft is simple, but the beauty of the cards will depend on the artistic skill of the maker.

-- Kraft Foods

Candy Sleigh

Makes 1

low-temperature glue gun
2 wrapped candy canes
3 wrapped Hershey's miniature candy bars (all same color)
1 chocolate wrapped Santa (about 2 inches tall)
2 Dove wrapped chocolate bars (Christmas ones look like presents)

With glue gun, put glue on the bottom short edges of a Hershey's candy bar. Place on top of two candy canes (curly sides up to imitate sleigh), about 1/4 way down from ends.

Put glue on bottom short sides of another candy bar. Place on candy canes right in front of the other candy bar. Put glue on a top long side of third candy bar. Place it upright along outside edge of first bar to make back of seat.

To put Santa in the sleigh, put glue on bottom of his feet and attach him to the top of the first candy bar. Glue presents to sleigh in front of Santa.

Note: This project can be done in less than 5 minutes.

-- kidsdomain.com

Chocolate Church Mice

Makes 24

1 cup semisweet chocolate chips
1 tablespoon vegetableshortening
48 dried apricots
48 M&Ms minis
black shoestring licorice
24 dry-roasted peanut halves

Place chocolate chips and shortening in a microwave-safe bowl and microwave on high for 1 minute. Stir and microwave for 1 minute more. Stir until smooth.

For each mouse, press together 2 dried apricots, making a small point for the mouse's nose, and thread them on a wooden skewer. Dip them into the melted chocolate and place on a waxed-paper-lined baking sheet.

Use a second skewer to push the mouse off the first skewer. Use your fingertip to cover the hole left behind with chocolate. Add M&Ms minis for the eyes and licorice for the tail. Break each peanut half in half and use for ears. Refrigerate until hardened.

-- Familyfun.com

Stained Glass

Makes 1 ornament

23 individually wrapped large-size red Life Savers Roll candy
8 to 10 individually wrapped large-size Life Savers Pep-O-Mint Roll candy ribbon

Finely crush red candies. Spoon onto foil-lined cookie sheet; spread to 2-inch circle.

Bake at 350 degrees for 3 minutes or until candies are melted.

Remove from oven; immediately press mint candies around edge of melted candy, spacing evenly.

Cool completely at room temperature. Carefully peel off foil. Thread ribbon through 1 of the candies for hanging; tie in bow.

Note: For a variation, crush different colors of Life Savers and melt them inside hollow metal cookie cutters to create holiday shapes.

-- Kraft Foods

Macaroon Tree

Makes 1 tree

one 4-inch-by-9-inch plastic-foam cone
aluminum foil to cover cone(see note)
three 10-ounce containers ofcoconut macaroons or homemade macaroons
one 24-ounce package of whitechocolate bark coating, melted (or white chocolate chips)
1/4 cup coarse sparkling sugar
red cinnamon candies or othercandies for decorating
1 big oatmeal cookie
3/4 cup ready-made white frosting (divided use)
green food coloring paste
green edible glitter
10-inch cardboard round
M&Ms, optional

Wrap cone with aluminum foil. Dip 1 macaroon into melted coating; attach macaroon to cone near the base. Repeat the process with remaining macaroons, placing them close together to cover foil and working toward top of cone.

Drizzle tree with additional melted coating, filling any gaps; sprinkle with sparkling sugar.

Attach cinnamon candies to tree with melted candy coating.

Cut a star with a 1 3/4-inch star-shaped cutter from oatmeal cookie. Tint 1/4 cup frosting with desired amount of food coloring paste. Spread on star and dip in glitter. Attach star to top with melted candy coating. Let stand 2 hours.

For tree skirt, spread remaining frosting on 10-inch cardboard round. Decorate with cinnamon candies or M&Ms. Place an upside-down souffle dish on center of cardboard and put tree on top of dish.

Note: To avoid seeing the foil shine through, spread a thin layer of candy coating on cone before applying macaroons.

-- Southern Living magazine

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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