Graduation Party Ideas on a Budget

graduation collage

If you’re anything like us, you have a handful of graduation announcements and open house invitations posted all over the refrigerator door. Maybe you have a high school graduate this year yourself! If you’re in need of graduation party ideas, no need to search high and low for the best tips to keep costs down. Give your grad a memorable send-off while keeping the budget in line with these tips:

Pool Your Resources

One of the easiest ways to cut costs is to have a combined graduation party. A duo or trio of grads can join forces to split the party budget—and make it more convenient for party-hopping guests. It’s win-win, and this strategy will give party planners leeway to splurge on some items while still staying within the budget.

Timing is Everything

Food is likely to be the single biggest expense when it comes to throwing a graduation party. Save money without looking like a cheapskate by scheduling your party outside of regular meal times. Instead of dinner, treat guests to trays of cookies or even better, a sundae bar where they can customize to their heart’s content with sprinkles, hot fudge or candy crumbles.

Location, Location, Location

Warm weather makes it easy to host a graduation bash right in your own yard. But if you don’t have the space, consider other budget-friendly options. Local parks, community centers and churches often have facilities available to rent for a reasonable fee. And a park location will often have built-in entertainment for younger guests, like playgrounds.

DIY Decorations

Staying on budget doesn’t have to mean boring decorations. Chances are one of the best decorating options is right at your fingertips: photos. Celebrate your grad’s achievement with plenty of pictures. Photos provide a focal point, and they encourage conversation among guests. Use framed prints as table decorations. Tie it all together with dollar store frames painted in school colors. Don’t forget to scour Pinterest for more great photo display ideas!

Save on Snacks

Instead of catering, feed the masses with homemade fare. Stretch meats like pulled pork by serving with slider buns. Fill crockpots with bite-size snacks like cocktail franks and meatballs. Fill up guests’ tummies with chips and dips. Rather than a buying a decorated cake, make cake pops or cupcakes iced in school colors. Provide guests with dessert-sized plates—they’ll look full with less.

Some of our favorite graduation party recipes:

Home Made Corn Dogs

Mini Biscuits with Shaved Ham

Key Lime Bars

Banana Chocolate Chip Cupcakes

Tips for Gluten-Free Baking

Gluten Free Baking Problems Solved

Whether you’re gluten-free for medical reasons or you just want to avoid the “wheat belly,” baking with alternative flours can be a challenge. There are plenty of gluten-free recipes online, but what if you want to create a gluten-free version of your grandma’s signature banana bread? These handy tips can help you do just that, or troubleshoot a gluten-free baking catastrophe.

Dry Ingredients:

  • Use a combination of gluten-free flours
  • Sift flours and starches prior to measuring. Sift again after combining to improve texture of baked goods.
  • Mix flours thoroughly before adding to other ingredients
  • In recipes which call for rice flour or corn meal: mix with liquid, bring to a boil, then cool before adding
  • To maintain freshness, refrigerate gluten-free flours and bring to room temperature prior to baking

Leavening:

  • Starch flours require extra leavening. The rule of thumb is 2 teaspoons of baking powder per cup of gluten-free flour, but you may need to reduce the amount to adjust for altitude.
  • If baking soda and buttermilk are used for leavening, add 1-1/8 teaspoon of cream of tartar for each ½ teaspoon of baking soda to neutralize acid.

Liquids:

  • Add dry milk solids or cottage cheese to recipe to improve structure or baked goods
  • Use evaporated milk instead of regular milk
  • If your baked goods are too crumbly, add an extra egg white next batch

The Process

  • Without gluten, kneading time is shorter, so take care not to over beat
  • If using a bread machine, only use one kneading cycle
  • Let gluten-free dough rest at least 30 minutes or up to overnight in the refrigerator to improve texture

Baking & Keeping

  • Bake in a smaller portions at a lower oven temperature for a longer time
  • Use dark pans for better browning
  • Because gluten-free baked goods can dry out quickly, always wrap them tightly and store in the refrigerator or freezer to retain quality

World Baking Day: Celebrating the Universal Appeal of Dessert

Tortona, Italy Muffins & Co.

When you think of baking in Italy, you might envision cannoli and rustic loaves of hearty bread. But Giovanna Coni’s Muffins & Co. is not your typical Italian bakery.

In fact, except for its location in the Northern Italian city of Tortona, Muffins & Co. isn’t an Italian bakery at all. Brimming with cupcakes, brownies and of course, muffins, the shop is an American-style bakery in the heart of Italy.

In honor of World Baking Day, we decided to highlight this unusual bakery, where an Italian baker’s love for all things American translates to a tasty testament to the universal appeal of dessert.

How long have you had the bakery and what kinds of items do you sell?

Muffins & Co. opened on November 20th 2010, it was born with the concept to be a copycat of an American bakery, with only homemade products, made from scratch, without using prepared stuff or mixes. We sell only the typical homemade products of the American tradition, such as muffins, pancakes, cheesecake, brownies, cupcakes, simple bars and similar items.

What was your job before opening the bakery?

I was a Marketing & Communication Manager and worked for the Hong Kong Trade Development Council in Milan. I have always had the passion of baking and cooking and, in the back of my mind, wanted to open a shop or a restaurant.

In 2003 I opened my own PR and communications company selling Italian products worldwide. My company represented several foreign organizations such as WTC in Dubai, International Home and Housewares Association based in Chicago, several fairs in Hong Kong and China as well as Brazil and Turkey.

Then in 2008 I met my husband, Marcello Serrano, and we came up with some ideas as both of us were in love with baking and cooking.

Why did you choose to open an American-style bakery in Italy?

As a start, we thought about a chocolate place, then after a long research we turned to an English/American style bakery (I lived in UK for a few years and got a university degree there).  We wanted to target the younger demographic…I switched to an American bakery because US is still the tomorrow land for everybody.

How did you decide what items to bake and where did you get your recipes?

We decided to bake the “most wanted” and famous  American items: muffins, pancakes, cupcakes, cheesecake, red velvet and different kind of bars and cakes. Recipes were supplied by old books I had and as for cupcakes many were supplied by Susan Tingley who, at the time, owned a cupcake shop in Terre Haute, Indiana. We met on Facebook, and exchanged recipes, giving Muffins & Co. original American recipes.

Are there some flavors that were unfamiliar to Italians?

Not really, though we live in a small city (around 35,000 people); a lot of clients are already familiar with the items we bake.  But we were the first to spread the different kind of American products locally. A few months after we opened the bakery, most local traditional bakeries and bars started to sell muffins and a “sort of” red velvet cake or cupcakes without much success. People who really want a true American product come only to Muffins & Co. People come also from far away, Milan, Turin, Florence, in addition to those around the area.

Which items have been most popular?

Best selling items are muffins, cupcakes and cheesecake.  But actually most of our homemade bars (brownie, mint brownie, coconut brownie, chocolate ganache brownie, lemon and lime bars, shortbreads, etc.) are really doing well.

Are there any items that you give an Italian twist to an American favorite?

Our thought is to have the original American baking recipes, we are not using prepared stuff or prepared mixes, the concept is to give our clients an American product absolutely far away from that of a fast food–fresh ingredients, eggs, milk, fruit—instead, a “slow food” concept providing good quality and best taste.

Has it been difficult to find certain ingredients? Which ones?

We found it difficult to find items such as the pure vanilla extract. Here, the aroma (artificial vanilla flavor) is more available, because in the Italian baking tradition vanilla is not used at all. The one we use comes from Madagascar and is prepared in France, from the most important vanilla seller in Europe. Cost is very high, 75€ per 1 liter (about $100 per quart) plus transportation.

Jelly to make the marshmallow bars comes directly from the USA.  We only use Knox gelatin. We can find gelatin here, but it’s a different kind and not good for our purpose. It is difficult to find sugar cupcake toppers for different events (Halloween, St. Valentine, 4th July, etc.) but we can get them from UK.

Also packaging is difficult to find for cupcakes and bars. We can get the packaging here but unfortunately the cost is far too high.  This is due to the fact that cupcakes are still not common here.

They started to be known after the “Sex and the City” series a few years ago, but since Italy has a very strong baking and cooking tradition only those “open minded” try new things. Fortunately our formula is a winning one.

It’s a question of choice. Good ingredients = good products.

Makeover An All-American Favorite

Chocolate Chunk Cookies

Happy National Chocolate Chip Cookie Day! If there’s one all-American treat that everyone can, and should, master it’s the basic chocolate chip cookie.  Aside from the fact that they are way better than the packaged alternative, nothing will give you instant baker credibility like homemade cookies. Chocolate chip cookies are a classic, and a good basic recipe will make it easy to impress everyone from the coworkers to the in-laws.

We like to think of the chocolate chip cookie as a good base for culinary creativity. A gateway, if you will, to more sophisticated, trendy and whimsical variations. Check out some of our favorite ways to take your favorite basic recipe to the next level with a few simple swaps and additions:

Dried cherries & dark chocolate – We love this pairing, as the cherries add a nice, slightly tart, chewy component. And since dark chocolate is supposed to be good for you, why, these are practically health food!

Espresso powder & mint chocolate chips – If you love the mint mochas at your favorite coffee shop, you’ll love this combination.

Pretzel pieces & butterscotch chips – Pretzels are everywhere these days, and their salty crunch is the perfect match for super-sweet butterscotch chips.

Toffee bits & milk chocolate chips – Buttery toffee adds a nice crunch when paired with smooth milk chocolate chips. Add pecans for extra pizzazz.

White chocolate & sprinkles – Cake batter flavored treats are so popular right now. We know kids and grown-ups alike are going to go crazy for these sprinkled cookies.

More Cookie Tips

  • Always use real butter for best results
  • Change up the texture by chopping chocolate rather than using chips
  • Toast nuts like pecans and walnuts for best flavor
  • Use a scoop for uniform cookies

Check out some of our favorite chocolate chip cookie recipes in the Clabber Girl Recipe Archives.

Strawberry Piña Colada Pie

Photo from http://chewnibblenosh.com
Photo from http://chewnibblenosh.com

This tropics-inspired Strawberry Piña Colada Pie made its debut at the inaugural Rev event in Indianapolis. Rev, a fundraiser for the Methodist Health Foundation and Indiana University Health, brought in more than forty restaurants and caterers, five bands and two celebrity chefs to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. A food-centered event for a cause? Count us in!

We served up this pie all evening, and the top Indy 500 drivers gave it a thumbs up. We think you’ll love it, too! The homemade snickerdoodle crust is slightly soft, and coconut cream pudding with crushed pineapple make for a sweet and flavorful filling. Topped with strawberries and whipped cream, this pie is a fresh addition to any dessert table. Make this for your Mother’s Day get-together this weekend, or simply to enjoy yourself. Check out the step by step instructions from Chew Nibble Nosh.

Strawberry Piña Colada Pie

Snickerdoodle Crust

2 ¾ c. all-purpose flour
2 tsp. cream of tartar
1 tsp. baking soda
¼ tsp. salt
¼ tsp. cinnamon
1 ½ c. granulated sugar
½ c. butter, room temperature
½ c. shortening
½ tsp. vanilla
2 large eggs
3 tbsp. whole milk (to roll dough in-mix together in small bowl)
3 tbsp. granulated sugar (to sprinkle on dough)
3 tsp. cinnamon (to sprinkle on dough)

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
  2. In the bowl with mixer, beat butter and shortening on medium-high speed for 1 minute, until smooth and creamy. Add sugar and beat until fluffy. Add eggs, mixing after each addition, then milk and vanilla.
  3. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, soda, cream of tartar, salt and cinnamon.
  4. Set mixer at low speed, and slowly add dry ingredients to butter mixture. Mix until combined.
  5. Chill dough for 1 hour. Once dough is chilled, scoop out 1 ¼ cups of dough and press into bottom and halfway up side of 9×9 square or 9-inch pie pan.
  6. Combine the cinnamon and sugar, and sprinkle the dough generously.
  7. Bake at 375 degrees for 10-15 minutes or until done.
  8. Let crust cool completely before adding pie filling.
  9. You can scoop out the rest of the dough and roll in cinnamon sugar to make snickerdoodle cookies, or make an extra crust.

Filling and Topping

8 oz. cream cheese (softened)
2 oz. milk
Coconut cream pudding (3.4oz. box)
8 oz. crushed pineapple (undrained)
1 oz. pecans (chopped)
2 c. whipped cream, plus more for piping
¼ c. coconut flakes (toasted)
1 1/4 c.  sliced strawberries (may be sweetened with sugar if desired)

Directions:

  1. In a mixing bowl, beat cream cheese and milk until blended.
  2. Add dry pudding mix and pineapple, and beat for 2 minutes.
  3. Add in whipped cream and pecans, and mix until just combined.
  4. Pour into prepared snickerdoodle crust.
  5. Refrigerate until firm (at least 3 hours).
  6. Garnish with strawberries in center of pie, then pipe outside the strawberries with extra whipped cream.
  7. Garnish with toasted coconut flakes on piped whipped cream.
  8. Keep refrigerated.

Mexican Skillet Corn Cake

Mexican Skillet Corn Cake

Did Cinco De Mayo come and go too quickly? Keep the celebrating going this weekend with a Mexican Skillet Corn Cake! This might look like a traditional all-American cornbread, but it’s far from it. This is more of a moist cake with the addition of corn, brown sugar, and sweetened condensed milk. The flavors are reminiscent of a pineapple upside down cake and a tres leches cake combined. It’s sweet, without being overly sweet.

Show mom some love on Mother’s Day – or treat yourself! – by whipping up this sweet Mexican-inspired dish that’s sure to please. Serve this skillet as a brunch appetizer or top with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, drizzled with honey, and sprinkle with ground cinnamon for a delicious dessert.

1 tablespoon canola oil
2 (15-ounce) cans whole corn kernels, drained
1 (14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
½ cup butter, softened
1/3 cup packed light brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 eggs
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons Clabber Girl baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
Vanilla ice cream (optional)
Honey (optional)
Ground cinnamon (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Grease a 9-inch iron skillet with 1 tablespoon of oil; set aside.

In a blender combine corn and sweetened condensed milk. Cover and blend until kernels are partially chopped but small pieces remain; set aside.

In a bowl beat the butter and brown sugar and granulated sugar with an electric mixer on medium speed until light and fluffy.

Add vanilla, and eggs one at a time, beating well after each. Beat in corn mixture.

In a small bowl combine flour, baking powder, and salt.

Add flour mixture to corn mixture, beating just until combined.

Pour batter into prepared iron skillet.

Bake for 45 to 50 minutes or until a wooded toothpick inserted near the center comes out clean.

Transfer to wire rack and cool for about 1 hour or to room temperature.

Serve with ice cream, drizzled with honey, and sprinkle with cinnamon, if desired.

Enjoy!

10 Cooking Tips for College Grads

 10 Cooking Tips for College Graduates

1. Get yourself a slow cooker. Sure, it’s not glamorous, but with this kitchen workhorse you’ll have the next best thing to Mom’s home-cooking ready and waiting when you get home.

2. Invest in a few good knives. Nothing makes chopping more frustrating and downright dangerous than cheap, dull cutlery. The basics–a paring knife, serrated knife and chef’s knife–will make meal prep so much easier and safer!

3. Plan ahead. Lack of planning will break your food budget faster than you can say ‘Chinese take-out.’ Get in the habit of making a weekly menu, and planning your shopping list in advance. Take advantage of sale items–if ground beef is on sale, buy extra, cook it all at once and designate half for burritos and the other half for a meaty lasagna.

4. Think high protein, low cost. We’d love to eat fresh salmon and steak every meal, but let’s face it, we’re paying off student loans now! Stretch your budget by choosing less expensive cuts of meat and incorporating other protein sources like beans and quinoa.

5. Buy in-season. Choosing produce in season is not only cost-effective, it also guarantees the most flavorful ingredients. Check your grocery or farmers market to find out what is in abundance.

6. Get your java fix at home. A daily coffee shop habit can add up in a hurry. Purchase good quality coffee beans, a grinder, and make your morning cup at a fraction of the cost. Check out roast master Chris Weber’s tips for perfectly brewed coffee.

7. Know the pantry staples. A well-stocked pantry is the key to kitchen flexibility. Building your stash of staples will mean fewer trips to the grocery store, and make it easier to try great new recipes on the fly. 

8. Master a basic chocolate chip cookie recipe. Few foods are as comforting as homemade chocolate chip cookies. These all-American treats are a cinch to make, and will give you instant kitchen cred at the office pitch-in. Once you’ve mastered the basics, customize with cranberries, pecans, and more. 

9. Ask for help. There’s no shame in asking an experienced cook for guidance! Most people who enjoy cooking enjoy sharing their knowledge, so don’t be shy. 

10. Experiment.  Make recipes your own by experimenting with ingredient substitutions or adding your favorite spices. Adapt dishes you like to meet your individual taste. Get your creative juices flowing in the kitchen!