Hola peppermint stickones, Merry Christmas! Happy Monday!

You probably have all your Christmas shopping done already, as it’s Christmas Eve today. But in case you’re still looking for a special way to say “I love you” to friends or family members, may I suggest (as I do every year) that you consider a flowering bulb?

Good To Grow, Liza's plants, holiday gift idea

Bulbs make great gifts because everyone loves fresh flowers indoors during the winter.

Hyacinths are my bulb of choice, because they have such a lovely scent. Paperwhites bloom easily but their scent is so strong – people either love it or hate it. Hyacinths seem to have universal appeal.

You should be able to get Hyacinth bulbs at one of your local nurseries. They should be on sale, too.

As for what to do with the bulbs once you get them, I like to start by collecting containers from a thrift store. They need to be waterproof. Here are some containers I picked up at Savers:

Good To Grow, Liza's plants, holiday gift idea

Next, fill the containers with decorative glass pebbles or rocks. Then place the bulb on top and fill the container with water.

Poof – just like that, you have thoughtful gifts for people you care about.

Good To Grow, Liza's plants, holiday gift idea

Easy peasy to make.

Now, these are not maintenance-free gifts. I only give them to people who I know will care for them. Every couple of days they’re going to have to add water to the container, and they’re going to have to do that for weeks to come. I recommend keeping the bulb on the kitchen windowsill, if possible.

But to people who understand the rewards of bulbs, those people will be tickled that you made this little creation for them.

Anyway, that’s my idea of a nice gift.

I made one for myself, too.

Good To Grow, Liza's plants, holiday gift idea

Because I’m probably the biggest fan of them all!

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I’m going to be taking a break from the blog starting after today’s post. I’ll be back on Friday for the puzzler, but then I won’t be back again until the following Friday, January 4th, when I’ll return with all my Experts for our first panel of the new year.

I’ve been blogging more or less consistently for the last three years, so a break will be good. Sometime in January, I’ll hit my 1000 posts benchmark.

I’m looking forward to 2013. We live in interesting times.

Before I go, I wanted to ask you dear readers about something. You see, I’ve been trying my hand at making caramel candies for the first time, and was hoping to get opinions from those of you out there who have caramel making experience.

I think that homemade caramels also make a great gift, so I’ve had visions in my head of delivering flowering bulbs and bags of candies to my friends and family members.

It was going to be so awesome.

I started reading up on recipes and watching videos. Right away, I noticed that everyone had a different temperature recommendation, they all used different ingredients, they had different cooking methods.

Awesome turned into intimidating.

But then after watching enough videos, I decided that if there was so much leeway in how to make them, it must not be that hard.

Rookie confidence.

I could see that the common denominators of the recipes were sugar, cream, and butter, and you were doing some version of boiling them, either together or separately. A candy thermometer was necessary. A well-greased pan to pour the caramel into was necessary.

I found a cute recipe from Apartment Therapy. It was sensible, because it separated the cream/butter melting from the sugar/corn syrup/water boiling – which reduced risk. It was also sweet because they addressed newbies like myself and cheerleaded us on.

So I measured everything out and followed each step exactly as they said. What happened on my stove looked exactly like the photos they posted on their site.

I was euphoric. If I could master caramel so easily, what else could I conquer, I wondered.

I poured the caramel from the saucepan to the waiting greased dish. I carefully cleaned the thermometer, and the saucepan (by boiling water in it so the sugar dissolves).

Everything looked beautiful and the kitchen was clean.

Let me tell you how bursting with confidence I was at this point. I was patting myself on the back, I was high fiving myself.

I was so cocky that I decided to try a second batch. Right there and then.

The second recipe was much different. It seemed ridiculously easy.

1/2 cup of cream. 1/4 tsp of vanilla extract. 6 tbsp of butter cut into small pieces. 1 1/3 cup of brown sugar.

Combine the cream, butter, sugar and 1 tbsp of water into a medium sized saucepan. Stir over medium heat until the sugar dissolves and the butter is melted.

Bring to boil and cover for three minutes.

Then uncover and do not stir. Continue boiling to 250 degrees.

Remove from heat. Add vanilla and stir.

Pour caramel into well-greased pan. After it sets, preferably overnight, cut into pieces and wrap with wax paper.

I did exactly that and the caramel looked perfect.

The first batch had taken about 40 minutes, the second about 25 minutes.

So now I had two successful batches of caramel, and an ego that knew no bounds.

I made lists of who would be the beneficiaries of my newfound love affair with candy making. I pondered entering candy making contests – was there a candy-making circuit where I could lord my natural talents over those who have slaved in their kitchens for years?

Surely there must be some sort of prize for candy making rookie of the year.

I went to sleep that night knowing that everything was right with the world.

And it was.

Until I woke up.

I got out of bed and crept straight to the kitchen. Coffee could wait, I wanted the sweet taste of success to be my first sensation of the day.

I took a knife from the drawer, and approached the two pans of caramel with the swagger of a seasoned pro.

I reached down to the pan with the knife and bam!

Rock hard candy.

I checked the second batch. It was rock hard, too.

What went wrong?

Where was my squishy soft caramel?

Surely it wasn’t me. I had too much natural talent for it to be my mistake.

Undaunted, I forged ahead.

I researched SOFT caramels candies, and found a recipe for Aunt Emily’s soft caramels. They sure looked soft.

The next evening, I decided to try the recipe. I figured with so much milk, cream, butter and corn syrup in the recipe, they would be the softest, bestest caramels ever.

So I did what Aunt Emily said, and the caramel looked perfect. A nice light brown.

The whole house smelled like caramel. And like success.

Once again, I cleaned all the dishes and equipment and went to bed that night feeling on top of the world.

Which, of course, lasted until the next morning when I woke up to another batch of rock hard candy. It’s not quite as hard as batch one and two, and the flavor is delicious. But I can’t cut it with the sharpest knife I have, so it’s nowhere near the melt-in-your-mouth caramels I’ve dreamt about.

So, what the heck?

What’s the secret to making the squishy caramel?

I’d appreciate your thoughts and opinions!

Thanks so much, and Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you all!

(If you want a reminder on when I’ll post again, then subscribe to my blog – you’ll get an email every time I post something new.)

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