Decorating Christmas cookies with my sons is one of my favorite holiday traditions, made even sweeter when Grandma Sharon, Uncle Pat or friends can join the fun.
But this year I've been wondering when, between work, school and swim meets, I'll find time to make the dough, roll it out and cut festive shapes so we can commence the decorating, which (besides eating them!) is the part the kids like best.
Then I learned about GFS Marketplace's Holiday Cookie Dough. For $9.99 you get a 72-count box of precut sugar cookie trees, stars and ornaments that are ready to bake (eight to 12 minutes at 375 degrees) and decorate (or decorate and bake if that's how you do it at your house). From what I understand, these fab prefab cookies are as coveted this time of year as the McRib.
You can head down to your closest GFS Marketplace (Palatine to Aurora and points in between) and pick some up, or you can win a box of the sugar cookie or gingerbread varieties in our Holiday Cookie Decorating Contest.
Simply decorate cookies this weekend and send a high-resolution jpg of your creations along with your name, age, town and phone number to email@example.com by 9 a.m. Monday, Dec. 12.
A GFS representative and I will judge the entries and pick three winners in the following categories: Cutest, Most Elegant and Most Original. Please include Cookie Contest and the category you're entering in the subject line of the email. Participants must live in Cook, Lake, DuPage, Kane, McHenry, Will or Kendall counties.
The winners will be announced in the Dec. 14 Food section and the winning pictures shared on my Facebook page.
Girl on the go: When I first featured Stephanie Izard as a Chef du Jour in October 2005, she was still catching her breath after opening Scylla, her Mediterranean-influenced Bucktown eatery. The then-28-year-old wondered how she was going to hold up under the pressure of increased critical acclaim: "Four years down the line how am I going to continue to create great dishes?" she remarked. " ... I am growing as a chef and developing more and more my own style."
Turns out she's held up just fine thank you, and this former "Top Chef" champion has grown into one of the country's brightest culinary stars with a uniquely bold and varied style.
A table at her one-year-old Girl and the Goat is nearly impossible to get, and when Izard isn't leading the team there she might be at a suburban farm learning about local vegetables, blending her own whiskey, serving up curried goat stew at a charity event or cooking for award-winning country music stars.
Still, she somehow found time to write her first cookbook, "Girl in the Kitchen," a book that gives as much insight into the girl behind the stove as it does into the creative dishes within the pages.
Along with sharing recipes (like the Orange-Glazed Acorn Squash) she provides ingredient advice, technique tips and wine and beer pairings.
Right now it's the closest I can get to a table at "the Goat," so I'll take it.
Frugal gourmet finds: Aldi had never been on my shopping radar, but after attending a tasting at its Batavia headquarters a few weeks back I've started shopping there. First I was surprised by the number of stores that were so close by, and secondly I've been pleased with not only the prices but the high-quality, great-tasting products. The edenVale Brie I used for testing some of last week's recipes came from Aldi.
Holiday time is the perfect time to explore your local Aldi. We all know money can get tight around the holidays, yet we still want to gather with family and friends for celebrations big and small. Appleton Spiral Sliced Ham at $1.69 a pound will save you 29 percent compared to other popular brands, while a box of assorted Savoritz Entertainment Crackers costs $1.49. I kid you not, you will not be able to taste a difference between these crackers and ones you might pick up at a gourmet shop.
The most surprising moment during the taste test came when I tried Aldi's Landshut Riesling alongside a popular blue-bottled brand. It was crisper, more flavorful and, at $4.99 a bottle, 45 percent less expensive.
So if you come to my house during the holidays, you might not see a fresh-cut wreath on the door (we still have to cut corners somewhere), but you will be treated to plenty of good food, good wine and good cheer.
• Contact Food Editor Deborah Pankey at firstname.lastname@example.org or (847) 427-4524. Be her friend at Facebook.com/DebPankeyDailyHerald and follow her on Twitter @PankeysPlate.