December 2, 2016
The greatest season of all has arrived! Oh yes. We’re going to do it all this year! Our decorations will dazzle. We’ll bake cookies by the dozens, arrange them on adorable plates, and deliver them to all of our friends. Our holiday shopping will be completed in record time, and the gifts will be wrapped in color-coordinated papers and placed under our gorgeous tree (or trees). Christmas cards, with accompanying clever letters, will be sent early in December to the entire list of family and friends. We’ll host a holiday dinner or two, and maybe a neighborhood coffee or a happy hour. The custom-monogrammed stockings will be hung by the chimney with care … and …. Whoa! Rein in your reindeer and that big sleigh full of holiday spirit. You’re going to pop a vein if you try to do it all! Seriously though, we adore this crazy time of year, don’t we? We love to make lists and check them all twice to see how we’re coming along on our grand plan to create the best Christmas ever. We are cockeyed optimists who believe that in the end we will do it all and do it well.
If you’re like me, however, each year I find myself letting go of a few more things on the “To Do” list. The Christmas cards got the heave-ho about 10 years ago, followed by just saying “no” to making dozens of candies and decorated cookies. (Now I only make a few favorites each year.) Next, I came to my senses about decorating three trees (including one that’s 10-foot-tall with about 8,000 lights). Why would a five-foot-tall woman with bad knees and a fear of heights ever have considered such madness? This year I ordered a sensible, slimmed-down, 7 1/2-foot, pre-lit version. (I do expect some family backlash regarding my new underwhelming tree—but it certainly won’t come from my high-branch-helper, Bob.) My shopping has devolved into buying lots of gift cards. The kids can get what they desire most and the cards don’t take up valuable space in their suitcases for the flights back to their homes. Most of the rest of my shopping is done on Amazon or other internet sites, and then I can have the gifts sent directly to their homes. I am seriously trying to scale back on much of this Christmas busyness.
The question is, has this pared-down approach to Christmas made me a happier elf? Probably not. I love to futz with everything. I adore the big-production aspect of the season. (Whaddaya say, kids! Let’s put on a show!!!) I do wonder if I can find enough joy in this less frantic pace to justify what I have given up. Bottom line: Whether I go grand or minimalist, I will always want a little tszuj (think Carson Kressley) to satisfy the holiday-decorating beast that smolders within me.
Here’s a fun idea that I pulled together several years ago when I still exuded lots of exuberance.
“Come for an unforgettable holiday dinner!” That’s what the invitation to our guests said. Talk about great expectations, I think our friends were anticipating a fine meal. When the seven of them arrived on the appointed evening, a surprise awaited. They could see that the dining room was dark and the table hadn’t been set. No fragrant food aromas hung in the air because nothing was in the oven. As we greeted them, we handed out new chef’s aprons, wooden spoons and copies of recipes. We sat them down with some wine to give them courage because they were about to learn that they were going to make the entire meal, including the appetizers. Then we told them that they should get moving because we were hungry and this was going to take some work! Pan-demonium!
It was all quite humorous. We allowed them to help each other in order to save some the food from impending ruin and to assure that the meal came together before 10:00. Watching an attorney frost sugar cookies and pipe guests’ names on them (to serve as place cards) was a knee-slapper. (No, the cookie pictured above was not decorated by that guy.) The laughter, confusion, barrage of questions and bumping into each other was continual, and probably fairly dangerous with all the knives and hot pans in the vicinity.
This party required a lot of advance planning. If you decide to do it, you must think of recipes that are appropriate for a sit-down dinner. In other words, no canned pork and beans or Spam. And it must be something that can be prepared in a timely manner. Obviously, roasted chicken or lasagna would take too long. Remember that your job as the host(s) is to be the troubleshooter, bartender, time manager, and EMT. You must forgo those obsessive/compulsive tendencies to offer unsolicited advice. No matter how the food looks or tastes, praise everyone! And eat that plate full of crappy stuff even if it kills you. (Actually, our cooks’ dishes all turned out well.) Finally, you might want to think about having your “unforgettable dinner party” at a time other than during the holidays. I honestly don’t know how I was able to do this at Christmas time!
Now I would like to share a non-holiday story from my high school days. Later on in this post, you will understand why.
Be assured that no babies were harmed in the brief time that I babysat in junior high and high school, but perhaps I should have been required to watch some training films.
My high school principal and his wife had adopted a new baby boy, Matt. This was the first time since his arrival that they had decided to go out for the evening. I was flattered when Mr. McCormick called and asked if I would be willing to babysit. I hadn’t ever taken care of a baby. Yet, here he was asking me, out of all the other high school kids, to care for their precious little son. (Well, I suppose he may have asked me since I lived only a few houses away.) Of course I said yes. Mr. McCormick said, “Now I assume you have taken care of a baby before?” I lied and said that I certainly had. (I knew that my mom could tutor me on the basics.)
When I arrived on the designated evening, the McCormicks showed me the bottles in the refrigerator and how to warm them, etc. I nodded knowingly. Then we went into Matt’s room where they showed me his crib. Pointing to a bed in the room, they explained that it was where I would change Matt’s diapers. And with a sweep of his hand in the direction of the bed, Mr. McCormick said, “The overnight diapers are over there too.” (Overnight diapers???) “Yes, of course,” I said. And then they left, knowing that he was in capable hands. Feeding Matt the bottle went well. I read to him from my American History book for awhile to lull him to sleep. Soon it was time to put on his overnight diaper and lay him in the crib. And that is when a mighty struggle ensued.
In those days, there were no disposable diapers—just cloth ones held together with big diaper pins that had yellow duck or white rabbit heads on them. I worked up a lather trying to get those pins into that diaper. Matt never fussed during the entire ordeal. When I finished, I surveyed my work. Definitely not good but it would have to do. I concluded that the McCormicks must change diapers as a team. One person could not do it alone.
When the McCormicks returned, they immediately wanted to know how it went. “Good! Very good!” I said. Shortly after I returned home, the phone rang, and all I could hear was Mr. McCormick laughing convulsively. (What???) He finally caught his breath and asked me why I had put the thick, brown-felt changing pad on Matt. (That wasn’t the overnight diaper???) The McCormicks never got over that. I was so relieved when Matt grew into adulthood with no apparent hip dysplasia—because when I had put him in his crib that night, his little legs were sticking straight out from their sockets.
Bob and I were married for 10 years before we had kids, and even then, for those nine months of my first pregnancy, I couldn’t grasp the reality of it. I was fairly positive that I had a boulder-sized, undiagnosed tumor. When a real baby boy (I sound like Geppetto) actually made his appearance, I could not fathom it. I had about the same baby-care skill level as that night years before when I took care of Matt McCormick. I was suddenly overwhelmed by the huge responsibility of it all. By some grand design, Bradley and his younger sister Kelly did make it to adulthood, despite the fact that their parents were rank amateurs when it came to child-rearing.
So, what is my point? You may have guessed by now. Bradley and our daughter-in-law Lindsey are expecting a little boy in May. We are thrilled! Bob and I have by now forgotten everything we ever knew about taking care of babies. Even so, we hope they will trust us to hold him and be occasional babysitters when they want to go out for dinner. At least I know a diaper from a changing pad now.
Expecting babies reminds me of the time I made gingerbread bears as party favors for a friend’s baby shower. As an extra “treat,” I tucked inside of each diaper (on the bear’s back side) a small, “well-formed” piece of Tootsie Roll. It looked very realistic!
A few days ago, I was cutting into a red onion and right there in the middle of each half was a heart!
My mom decided to save some of my Christmas cookies. She took them home, stuck them in a storage closet and forgot about them … for more than 15 years! She found them and brought them all back to me last Christmas. She thought they had survived amazingly well! Whew, that butter smelled rancid! I took a photo of this pathetic Santa and then quickly tossed him and the rest of the sorry bunch into the garbage.
Every year, these strange relatives show up for our several days of Christmas celebration. We let them stay because they come bearing wonderful gifts, food and champagne.
There will always be those who do not show proper respect for the noble art of food preparation.
Don’t you hate when this happens? I had popped into the Hy-Vee to pick up some raspberries and there stood this woman ahead of me in the express line. The poor thing must have left her house in a hurry too. One time I forgot to remove the sticky “size” tape running down the front of my sweater and I wore it to lunch. Another time, I attended a seminar where we had to do some role-playing. Afterwards, I went to the grocery store, forgetting that I was still wearing the large nametag on my sweater that said, “Hi! I’m Amelia Earhart!” Why did it have to be such a big nametag? Why didn’t someone stop me and ask where I had been all these years?
It’s Christmas! Time to trot out some recipes that you might enjoy for the holidays. It’s so hard to know which ones to choose.
Let’s start off with some delicious holiday beverages! I call them Jingle Bellinis. Your guests may choose from minty-lime or berry-lime.
- 2 (12-ounce) cans frozen limeade, thawed
- 3 tablespoons fresh mint leaves, roughly chopped
- 8 fresh raspberries
- 12 ounces water
- 12 ounces cranberry juice
- 1 cup vodka
- 2 (750 ml.) bottles Prosecco
- Thin sliced quarters of lime (for garnish)
- Raspberries (for garnish)
For green Bellinis: Pour 1 can of limeade, chopped mint leaves, 12 ounces of water, and 1/2 cup vodka into a blender. Purée until leaves are pulverized. (May pour through fine-mesh strainer if you don’t care for floating green leaf bits in your Bellinis.) Pour mixture into shallow plastic container and freeze for at least 8 hours. About 15 minutes prior to serving, remove the mixture from the freezer and use a heavy spoon to scrape and chop it into a slush. To serve, fill a champagne flute half full of slush. Fill with Prosecco and stir. Drop in a lime slice for garnish. For red Bellinis: Pour remaining can of limeade, 8 raspberries, cranberry juice and 1/2 cup vodka into a blender. Purée until raspberries are pulverized. (May pour through fine-mesh strainer if you don’t care for floating bits of raspberries.) Pour into shallow plastic container and freeze for at least 8 hours. About 15 minutes prior to serving, remove the mixture from the freezer and use a heavy spoon to scrape and chop it into a slush. To serve, fill a champagne flute half full of slush. Fill with Prosecco and stir. Drop in a raspberry for garnish. (Sometimes, I don’t freeze the mixtures. I just refrigerate them and then use the same proportion of the mixture and Prosecco.
Published at http://www.messycookblog.com
If you’re in a hurry, but you need an appetizer, here is a simple idea. Buy the giant green Greek olives. They are such a gorgeous color. (You can find them at Trader Joe’s, Costco and Whole Foods.) Also buy a jar or two of sun-dried tomatoes. Drain the oil and cut them in half or in thirds, depending their size. Pile the sun-dried tomatoes in the center of a round plate and then surround them with the drained olives. Serve with toothpicks.
Greek Green Olives and Sun-Dried Tomatoes
Here’s another quickie! Make a package of Hidden Valley Ranch Dressing Mix (dressing mix, not dip mix) according to the directions, except use only a half-cup of milk. Stir in a half-cup or more (to your taste) of your favorite salsa to the dressing. Or, if you prefer, make a curry dip. Pour a small amount into several shooter glasses, being careful not to get it on the sides. (I used a small funnel.) Put a selection of your favorite veggies cut into sticks (or whole snow peas or sugar snap peas) into each glass. Make enough for each guest, if possible. That’s it!
Fresh Veggies and Dip, Shooter-Style
Could there be a salad that’s more Christmas-y than this one? It makes a gorgeous presentation for your Christmas dinner. And those bread “trees” are melt-in-your-mouth delicious. The recipe for the Cheese Bread Cut-Outs came from a late great friend, Bobbye Scheidler; many of her dear friends have this recipe and have made these cute little cut-outs for years.
Raspberry Spinach Salad with Cheese Bread Cut-Outs
Raspberry Spinach Salad with Cheese Bread Cut-Outs
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 cup red wine vinegar
- 1/4 cup diced red onion
- 2 (6-ounce) cartons fresh red raspberries
- 8 red raspberries (taken from one of the cartons above)
- 1/2 cup vegetable oil
- 1 to 1 1/2 teaspoons poppy seeds
- 1 (9-ounce) bag baby spinach leaves
- Thinly sliced red onion rings
- 2/3 cup sliced almonds, toasted
To make the dressing, put sugar, dry mustard, salt, vinegar, onion, 8 raspberries and vegetable oil into a blender and process until thickened. Pour into a jar and stir in poppy seeds. Refrigerate. (Can make this a few days ahead.) To serve, divide spinach among 6 plates. Drizzle dressing over spinach. Arrange a few slices of the red onion rings, several raspberries, and toasted almonds on top.
Cheese Bread “Tree” Cut-Outs
- 3/4 cup (3-ounces) freshly grated Parmesan cheese
- 1/2 cup Hellman’s mayonnaise
- 2 to 3 tablespoons grated onion
- 1/4 teaspoon white pepper
- 1/4 teaspoon Lawry’s garlic salt (optional)
- 16 slices Pepperidge Farm very-thin-sliced white bread
Mix the Parmesan cheese, mayonnaise, onion, white pepper and garlic salt (if using) together. Cut desired shapes from the center of each slice of bread with a cookie cutter. Spread mixture evenly over each bread shape. (Tracy’s hint: It’s easier if you spread the mixture over the center area of each bread before using the cookie cutter.) Choose shapes according to the season or the type of party you’re having, such as autumn leaves, hearts, Christmas bells, stars, trees, footballs, flowers, etc. Place cut-outs on a cookie sheet and bake at 400 degrees for 5 to 7 minutes. Makes 16.
Published at http://www.messycookblog.com
These Christmas Wreath Cookies are unique because the shortbread-like dough also has oatmeal in it, making for a toothsome yet delicate-crunch combination. This recipe came from a bridge-group friend many years ago.
Christmas Wreath Cookies
Christmas Wreath Cookies
- 1 cup butter, room temperature
- 1/2 cup powdered sugar
- 2 teaspoons vanilla
- 2 cups flour
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 to 1 1/2 cups uncooked quick oatmeal
Beat butter until creamy. Add powdered sugar gradually, beating until fluffy. Add vanilla. Add flour and salt. Add oatmeal. (Tracy’s note: I often don’t use the entire 1 1/2 cups of oatmeal because it makes the dough too dry. I probably use 1 to 1 1/4 cups.) Roll out to 1/8-inch on surface dusted with powdered sugar. (Tracy’s note: I sprinkle the powdered sugar on a big sheet of waxed paper. I put half the dough on it. Sprinkle on more powdered sugar and then put another sheet of waxed paper on top. I roll out the dough between the two sheets of waxed paper. Then I remove the top sheet and cut the cookies with a 2 1/2-inch biscuit cutter. I gently lift each cut-out cookie with a thin spatula and put it on the parchment-covered cookie sheet. Repeat with the other half of the dough and continue until all of it is used.) Bake at 325 degrees for 7 to 8 minutes. Remove immediately from the cookie sheet. Allow them to cool on a rack. Frost with your favorite butter frosting, using plain white for a base coat. Add a “wreath” of green frosting on top of the base coat, along outside edge of cookie. (Use a small leaf tip or star tip on frosting bag or purchased tube of frosting.) Press 3 red hot candies together in the green frosting to make a cluster of “berries” (or use a #5 round tip on frosting bag to make the berries with red frosting, which is what I do).
- 1/3 cup butter
- 2 1/2 tablespoons half-and-half
- 2 1/4 cups powdered sugar
- Pinch of salt
- 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
Microwave the butter and half-and-half for 30 seconds. Beat in the powdered sugar, salt and vanilla with an electric mixer until smooth.
Published at http://www.messycookblog.com
A friend shared this flan recipe with me years ago after she had made it for her gourmet group. It is a rich, elegant, showstopper dessert for the holidays.
- 1 cup sugar
- 2 (8-ounce) packages cream cheese, room temperature
- 5 egg yolks
- 1 cup whole milk
- 1 (14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
- 1 1/2 teaspoons good vanilla
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- Fresh fruit for garnish/decoration, i.e., strawberry halves, raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, kiwi slices, etc.
Butter a 9-inch round cake pan. (I use a non-stick pan but I still butter it.) In a small, heavy saucepan, heat the sugar over medium-high heat, stirring constantly until the sugar has completely melted and is caramel-colored. Immediately pour syrup into prepared pan, quickly tilting pan to coat the bottom evenly before it hardens. Be careful. The syrup is extremely hot. Set aside. (Hint: It helps if the cake pan is warm so that the melted sugar doesn’t harden before it has covered all of the bottom. I set the cake pan in a 200-degree oven until I’m ready for it.) In a large bowl, with mixer on low speed, beat cream cheese and egg yolks until smooth. Gradually beat in whole milk, sweetened condensed milk, vanilla and salt until blended. Wrap foil around the bottom and up the sides of the cake pan. Pour milk mixture over hardened syrup. Set cake pan in a large baking pan and put it in the middle of a preheated 350-degree oven. Pour very hot water into the large baking pan so that it comes halfway up the side of the cake pan.Bake 50 minutes or until the flan has set (doesn’t jiggle much when shaken). Carefully remove entire contents from oven. Then remove pan of flan from the pan of water. Cool completely on a rack, and then cover the cake pan with foil and refrigerate until well-chilled. (This can be done a day ahead.) A few hours before serving, loosen flan from pan by running a sharp knife around the edge. Set a serving plate over the top of the pan and then quickly flip it over. The flan should release easily from the pan. Allow the syrup to drip from pan onto the top and sides of the flan. Decorate top with fresh fruits. (Hint: Be sure the serving plate is much larger than the flan to allow space for the syrup. I often pour some of the syrup down the drain before I invert the pan.) Slice into 12 pieces.
Published at http://www.messycookblog.com
When we were invited to a holiday potluck dinner a few years ago, I fretted because I didn’t have time to make something homemade. I was working long hours, so I had to do what many working women do—rely on store-bought, or as my friend Linda likes to say, “buy and put.” I told Bob we would just stop at Baker’s Square and pick up a pie on the way to the potluck. As we pulled up, Bob waited for the car ahead of him to move on. An elderly lady was very slowly getting out of the passenger side. As her husband drove away, Bob pulled up to the door to let me out. The lady was still trying to hoist her leg up over the curb. Suddenly she tilted backward and fell into the wheel-well area of our car.
We both leaped out and found her semi-conscious and half-sitting against the car. I froze. (I should point out that in kindergarten I got a “3” in “Meets situations calmly.”) Bob ran out into the parking lot to find her husband. I was trying to suppress my urge to flee as well as form coherent thoughts about how I could help. I could see that her wig had come off and was sticking out from under the tire. So I leaned down and gave a yank. It came out relatively intact. I lightly pounded it back onto her head. I thought the woman would agree that this was the most important thing I could do for her in that situation. By this time Bob was slowly shuffling along with the elderly husband and was almost back to our car. So, I ran inside the restaurant and told someone who appeared to be mangerial, and he called an ambulance (no cell phones back then). Then I ran back outside, but remembered I needed a pie. With Bob and the husband and other onlookers now at her side, I hurried back in and came out with pie box in hand. I don’t know how serious her injury was, but at least I left the scene knowing that I, in some small way, had helped to put her back together again. Moral of the story: Next time, just find something at home to take to the holiday potluck.
With so much to do and so little time to do it all, you can find yourself holidazed. Every now and then you must stop and remember why you are going to so much effort. You’re supposed to be having fun, not losing sleep from worry. I loved this quote that I saw on Facebook recently: Brain at 3 a.m.: I can see you are trying to sleep, so I would like to offer you a selection of every memory, unresolved issue, or things you should have said or done today, or in the past 40 years!—http://www.silversurfers.com
I have observed that sleepless nights seem to occur more frequently during the holidays. I have no advice on how to overcome this affliction since I am an insomniac of the first order. I can only wish you well during your nightly efforts to wrestle your brain into submission.
It’s time to get back to work! You have important things to do. We eternal optimists have great expectations for the season so there’s no time to dawdle! I am reminded that the title of Charles Dickens’ book Great Expectations was intended to be ironic. I think many of us see irony in our own Christmas-season expectations. And that’s fine—as long as we remain merry! I hope you’ll find time to come back here for a new post on December 16! Thank you!—Tracy