Currently viewing the tag: "holiday"

(The text for this post is taken from an old post with no recipe. I was feeling similar this year, and decided to share it again, along with a recipe.)

I spent ten Christmas Eves in a row working various retail jobs, everything from barista to Barnes and Noble. The holiday season started the day after Thanksgiving, with mile long lines continuing to Christmas Eve at 4pm, when the store gates finally clanged shut and stayed that way for one whole day. Work shifts in December were spent answering the constantly ringing phone, running around the store trying to find would-be presents, standing at the cash register hour upon hour swiping credit cards, dreading every 30 minutes when Paul McCartney’s Wonderful Christmastime would come on again, and cleaning up gigantic messes left by frantic customers. Then, at last, the night before Christmas, when the store gate was shut (although often people were begging outside it: please, can I buy just 1 pound of coffee? I just need one more book for my sister-in-law, will you let me in?) all the employees would feel that smack of exhaustion, the same one that comes at the end of finals week, when you are finally driving home for spring break. It would take hours to clean the store, and almost everyone could feel a serious cold coming on. Someone would order a pizza, and we’d munch in silence before taking off to our various celebrations, usually arriving sneezing and crazy-eyed, just wanting to crash into a bed.

I’ve now had ten years off on Christmas Eve. It is spent at home, quietly listening to holiday music, baking a batch of cookies, snuggling with my little ones watching White Christmas, and heading to my parent’s house early for festivities. I have a no-shopping on Christmas Eve rule for myself, but I must admit I feel something lacking each year without the craziness. The month of December doesn’t feel as sparkly and exciting to me without all the noise, the crowds of people, Mariah Carey singing Christmas songs through loud speakers all day long, racing up and down stairs trying to find books for exasperated customers. The thing I didn’t want to make the holiday about has now ended up defining the holiday to me. Those formative years of my teens and twenties, working hard all December long now shape how I need Christmas to feel to me as an adult. I can’t escape that, somehow.

I remind myself each year that just because something feels a certain way, it doesn’t mean that’s how it actually is. This is usually easier said than done. As a parent, I now determine how the holiday will look for my children. I start traditions and routine both for enjoyment and for recognition. I see my kids feeling so many things, and getting swept up in what makes Christmas so exciting. But my mission as a caretaker is more than that. It’s to teach what the reason behind this month long, money-spending, jingle-belling really is. At the very core, it’s to look to others, to give with no expectation of getting anything in return, and to remember that we all belong to each other, all of us, across this spinning round snow globe that’s so easily shaken. No matter how the actual days of December end up shaping my two little ones, I want them to still always be able reach past how they feel, and know, deep down, the joy and hope of Christmas, and their capacity to bring it everywhere they go. “If the world seems cold to you, kindle fires to warm it.” —Lucy Larcom

Read More

If you follow along on Instagram, you know I’ve been working on a ginger-molasses version of my pan-banging cookies. I finally have the recipe for you, although I’m going to be completely honest – I’m so nervous to share it! I’m terrified you won’t love them as much as the chocolate chip version, so I’ve been obsessively  making them trying to get everything just right. I also know that most everyone has a strong opinion on how they want their molasses cookie to be (soft! hard! chewy! dense! coated in sugar! no sugar! fresh ginger! just ground spices!) and this cookie will not appeal to everyone. I did make my dear friend Zoë test them out and she gave them her approval, so I’m going to go ahead and put the recipe out into the world.

Some good news: this particular version doesn’t need to be refrigerated. The molasses and butter in this cookie helps them to spread just fine without the added chill. I also make these a little bit smaller – 2 ounces, instead of 3 ounces. A few things to note: these taste best when the centers are under baked, just like the chocolate chip cookies. Because they are smaller, I bang the pan only 3-4 times instead of 5-6. If you do cook the centers, the outside will be slightly tough when they cool, and they don’t taste as good on the second day. If you get things just right, the outside will be crispy, the centers soft and slightly chewy, and they will still taste great the next day. If you try them, let me know how they turn out for you!

Read More

I know, I know, it’s Wednesday night, and you’ve probably already made your Thanksgiving pies, or have your recipe all set. I apologize for posting this so late. Several people asked for this recipe after I posted a photo of the pie on Instagram, so I thought better late than never? This is the pumpkin pie I’ve made at the last couple Thanksgivings, and it’s gone over quite well my family gathering. It is dreamy-creamy, and boasting of pumpkin flavor.

Read More

pumpkin scones

My littles are on Brightly today, making Pumpkin scones from The Vanilla Bean Baking Book. If you haven’t been to the Brightly site yet please check it out! The space is a resource for parents to help create lifelong readers, something I’m passionate about. Launched in partnership with Penguin Random House, Brightly features book recommendations from all publishers for every age and stage, reading tips and insights, seasonal inspirations, author essays, contests, gift guides, and more. There are so many great book lists and ideas here.

pumpkin scones

pumpkin scones

pumpkin scones

pumpkin scones


You can get the recipe for the Pumpkin Scones here. These scones are a family favorite, and might be what we wake up to this Christmas morning. “If the world seems cold to you, kindle fires to warm it.” —Lucy Larcom


holiday drinks
A few weeks ago the kind folks at Martha Stewart Living sent me their new copper bar set. I’m not much of a mixed drink kind of person, more like the ‘1/2 beer with dinner’ type, even though I do have a cabinet stuffed full of liqueur bottles. These, however, are used almost exclusively for baking. I decided to live it up just a little this December; trade the beer in for something more sassy, and put the new set to good use.

I met Ben from BET Vodka at Molly’s fabulous brunch a few weeks back, and he donated a bottle to make some drinks with. I took a fancy to his beautiful vodka bottles at the brunch (I also had a delicious drink made from it), and thought it would go well with pomegranate juice and ginger ale. Turns out it does. Then I received a few bottles of wine from Seven Daughters – I have had a good number of glasses of it over at the Faux Martha’s house, and knew it would pair wonderfully with something simple. Orange juice and Moscato happened at a recent family gathering, and everyone loved it.

These two drinks are so simple they probably don’t need recipes, but I figured there might be someone like me out there who needs a little help with making party beverages appear fancy, so I thought this might come in handy.

holiday drinks

holiday drinks

holiday drink

The copper bar set was sent to me by Martha Stewart Living, and can be found exclusively at Macys.
BET Vodka can be found online here.
Seven Daughters wine can be found online here.

As always, all opinions are my own.

Read More

saint lucia buns

Each December, I find myself searching for the perfect holiday traditions. Not that there are any perfect ones, of course, but with two little ones in our family, I crave some routine and consistency each year. Dream scenarios would be opening presents every Christmas morning as a family in our home, snuggling up on the couch with a mug of hot chocolate Christmas Eve to watch Rudolph (and then later White Christmas), searching through holiday magazines and cookbooks for the best cookie recipes and then making them together over Christmas break, and sweet yeasted bread every day. Cinnamon rolls, fruit-filled Danish, braided pumpkin-spice knots, just anything along those lines, all Christmas-time long.

st. lucia buns

King Arthur Flour asked me to bring a Christmas classic to their Holiday Table, and I immediately thought of St. Lucia Buns. St. Lucia Day is before Christmas Day, taking place on the longest night of the year (according to the ancient Julian calendar), December 13th. While these buns are not dripping in icing and swirled with cinnamon, they are sweet and delicious nonetheless. They could be made in the middle of December, and then again on the 25th, served for breakfast, or an afternoon coffee break after opening piles of presents and shaking every last piece of candy out of stockings by the fire. Whenever you decide to make them is just fine; just make sure to add them to your baking list.

Browse some of my other picks for Classic Christmas recipes and favorite tips for the season at King Arthur Flour’s Holiday Table.

st. lucia buns

Read More

Every year, I have good intentions of putting together a gift guide here of all my favorite cookbooks and kitchen items and whatnot, and every year, I never get around to it. So this holiday season to make up for lost time! I have quite the list for you.

Today’s gift guides are all books, so if you are not into that I apologize. However, I think books are the best gift to give and get, and so I can’t not make a big long list of all my favorites. But stay tuned: I will have kitchen items, non-cookbooks, and a kids’ guide for you soon. And! I’ve been working on a Holiday playlist over on Spotify, which you can find here. I’ll be adding to it a little more here and there.

First up, my favorite category: NEW BAKING BOOKS! Here we go…

Sweeter Off The Vine by Yossy Arafi – Here are beautiful photographs, recipes that always work, and a unique perspective on baking. I absolutely love Yossy’s book, and turn to it often. Favorite recipes: Yossy is known for her pies, so anything involving pie crust is a winner (see Cherry and Rhubarb Slab Pie, Pear Pie With Creme Fraiche and Caramel, and Tangerine Cream Pie),  I also love her Old-Fashioned Blood Orange Donuts and Apricot and Berry Galette With Saffron Sugar.

Breaking Breads by Uri Scheft – The first time I paged through this book I couldn’t stop whispering gorgeous at each and every photograph. The book succeeds at revitalizing ‘traditional recipes to suit modern tastes’. It is beautifully photographed, and includes helpful process shots for complicated recipes. On my to-do list: Marzipan Challah, Ricotta Streusel Babka, Sufganiyot (similar to a Boston cream doughnut), and Sticky Cinnamon Challah Snails (there are plenty of savory bread recipes, too, but I always gravitate towards the sweet).

Marbled, Swirled, and Layered by Irvin Lin – Irvin’s book came out one week before mine, and it’s packed full of really great recipes with some serious twists on classics. Everything from cookies and bars, cakes and cobblers are covered in this book. I honestly can’t stop thinking about the Pumpkin S’mores with Maple Brown Sugar Marshmallows and Dark Chocolate (dang!), and can’t wait to try the Seville Orange Bars With Salted Shortbread and Gin Meringue.

Classic German Baking by Luisa Weiss – I haven’t had a chance to start baking from this book yet, but have started reading it cover to cover, inspired by both Luisa’s writing and recipes. I’m starting with the Franzbrotchen (cinnamon-sugar buns) because they are the prettiest little buns I’ve ever seen, and I think they will become best friends with my tummy. Also the Brezeln (soft pretzels) are gorgeous, and I’ve always wanted to make Apfelstrudel but never have attempted, so this winter it’s on.

Golden by Itamar Srulovich & Sarit Packer – Golden comes from the ovens of London’s Honey & Co, which I have sadly never been to (one day, London, one day), and it is another book that I have a major to-do list for. Again, I’m drawn to the sweet (although there is savory here, too): Pistachio, Rose, & Strawberry Buns, Sweet Cheese Buns, Lemon Drizzle Cake with Elderflower and Marcarpone Icing, and Baked Apricots with Marzipan Filling and Almond Crumble are good starting points.

Panetteria by Gennaro Contaldo – Another gorgeous book, featuring Italian baking. I am smitten with the process shots featuring Gennaro Contaldo himself; they capture so beautifully the artist giving his life over his work: knowledge and pleasure and grace are in all the movements of his hands. I’m starting with the Focaccia Al Sale (Basic Focaccia with Sea Salt), then moving to mini pizzas with mushrooms and the Plum Cake Di Anna (chocolate chip and ricotta loaf cake).

The New Healthy Bread in Five Minutes A Day by Jeff Hertzberg and Zoe Francois – If you’ve been following along here for awhile, you probably already know that I contribute to Jeff and Zoe’s Bread in Five site quite frequently (in fact, they have a giveaway going on right now for my book). I worked on this latest book with them as well – a week long photo shoot with lots of baking and food styling and washing dishes and fighting over music. It was a blast. This edition is revised and updated with new recipes. I love the Whole Wheat Brioche, Whole Grain Doughnuts (covered in cardamom-ginger-cinnamon sugar, of course), and the Whole Wheat Christmas Stollen is a must this year.

Elements of Pizza by Ken Forkish – I was lucky enough to visit Ken Forkish’s bakery this summer, but I sadly didn’t make it into his pizza shop. Luckily, there is this book. The beginning chapter of this book ‘The Soul of Pizza’, is moving, highlighting famous pizza bakers and shops all over the world. I wanted to fly to each one, eat pizza forever, and then come home and try to recreate it. As that is not an option, luckily Mr. Forkish got to do that for me. I’ve made Grandma’s Pie (a sheet pan pizza) more times than I can count, and it is a family favorite every Friday night.

The Art of Pie by Kate McDermott – A wonderful book about making and baking pies. Ms. McDermott has been baking pies for years and years, and even has a pie camp (which sounds totally dreamy). The book is filled with practical tips and helpful information on making great pies, and whole chapters on making the crust, thickeners, and the Quintessential Apple Pie. Sounds like the perfect way to spend Christmas break to me.

Other baking books to check out: Bread Illustrated by Test Kitchen has some great recipes (like kolaches!), The Alternative Baker by Alana Taylor-Tobin for the gluten-free bakers in your life, Layered by Tessa Huff for baking, building and styling cakes, and The Everyday Baker by Abby Dodge won both an IACP award and a James Beard award, making it a total winner.



Molly On The Range by Molly Yeh – Molly’s new book is just as lovely and funny and fabulous as Molly herself. The photos are gorgeous, the illustrations lovely (there is even a page to color!) and the writing engaging. I’ve made the Dark Chocolate Scone Loaf, my kids are obsessed with the Chicken Pot Tot Hotdish, and there are so many things on my must-make list: Honey Ricotta Blintzes with Caramelized Onions, Scallion Pancake Challah, Rosewater Marshmallows, and Ginger Snow Cones.

Martha Stewart’s Vegetables by the Editors of Martha Stewart Living – This might be my favorite Martha cookbook (although, the Baking Handbook is pretty great). It is a beautiful collection of recipes, with simple yet lovely photographs for almost every recipe. Most recipes are savory, with a few sweet mixed in. I’ve made the Parsnip Cupcakes With Cream Cheese Frosting, and will soon try the Cornmeal Shortcakes with Corn Ice Cream and Blueberry Compote, Braised Chicken and Brussels Sprouts, Beet Risotto with Beet Greens, and Skillet Pizza with Greens and Eggplant.

Modern Potluck by Kristin Donnelly – I grew up in potluck culture, so I was excited to see a modern take on something that scared me as a child (there are some pretty funky hotdishes that get brought to a church picnic, let me tell you). Kristin’s book does not disappoint, with plenty of delicious and un-scary meals to share with friends and family: Late-Summer Enchilada Pie, Smoky Squash Mac & Cheese, Grilled Corn Salad with Lime Mayo, and Greek Expat Potato Salad. And, since we were the family that only brought dessert to potlucks (bars, of course), I was happy to see plenty in the ‘Sweets’ chapter – Potato Chip-Crusted Magic Bars, Lemon-Olive Oil Zucchini Bread, Peach-Blueberry-Slab Pie, and Cranberry Jam Streusel Bars with Walnuts all sound good to me.

Simple by Diana Henry – I only discovered Diana Henry a year ago, although she’s been writing books for quite awhile. Sometimes I’m not hip to the scene. I was instantly smitten with her prose; her books are the kind to curl up by a fire with, with hot coffee and something sweet for nibbling within arms length.’ You know the scenario. You’re home late. You’re tired and worn out. You could murder a bag of potato chips and a gin and tonic (and consider  pouring yourself a glass, even though the tonic has gone flat.) This is the kind of night when you need a treat. Self-control has no place here. The key thing, though, is to give yourself a treat worth having: a slightly luxurious meal, but one you can make quickly’ (my favorite lines, from her book, A Bird in the Hand). Coffee-Brined Pork Chops with Hot Sweet Potatoes sound right up my alley, as well as Roast Citrus, Ginger, and Honey Chicken. The Lemon and Lavender Cake looks perfectly lovely, but Bitter Flourless Chocolate Cake with Coffee Cream might be where I start things off. Also, when Yotam Ottolenghi writes on the back of your book that ‘Everything Diana Henry cooks I want to eat’, you know it’s going to be amazing.

Love & Lemons Cookbook by Jeanine Donofrio – This cookbook is what I aspire to in my everyday eating life: simple, clean recipes that bring healthy to my mind and body. In reality, there is too much butter and sugar in my way to make this a reality, but I do try. The photography throughout the book is gorgeous, and you will want to make everything: Strawberry Salad with Toasted Hazelnuts, Roasted Cauliflower and Red Pepper Soup, Spring Onion Pizzas, and Swiss Chard and White Bean Tacos are on my current list. A great cookbook to give on Christmas to help someone jump-start the New Year with good eating.

The Farmette Cookbook by Imen McDonnell – I had the pleasure of meeting Imen this summer, and have so enjoyed her beautiful book. ‘Recipes and Adventures From My Life on an Irish Farm’ is the subtitle, and as you can imagine, the book is filled with gorgeous photos and unique recipes from her life in Ireland. I swooned over the Hazelnut and Vanilla Slice, and have so many items up next to make: Queen of Puddings (jammy cake covered in piles of meringue), Smoky Dark Chocolate Porter Cake, Irish Pancakes, and Sweet Farmer Cheese Danish with Elderflower Glaze. There are plenty of savory recipes, too.

Mad Hungry Family by Lucinda Scala Quinn – 120 Essential Recipes to Feed The Whole Crew is the tagline here, and the book follows through. There are Double-Decker Pork Tacos, HamJam Cheddar Puffs, Chicken and Black Been Nachos, Nesting Noodle Rice Pilaf, Open-Faced Vegetable Omelet as perfect mains, plus chapters on potatoes, salads, breakfast, and sweets (Chocolate Hazelnut Orange Potstickers? Yes please.)

The Vegetable Butcher by Cara Mangini – I really like this book. As someone who grew up all meat and potatoes, cooking with a huge variety of vegetables is not my forte. Not because I don’t like how they taste, but often because I don’t exactly know how to cook them best (ask my husband about disasters with eggplants part 1 and 2). This book is incredibly helpful – it shows how to cut vegetables properly, gives the author’s favorite cooking methods for simple, straight-up cooking, and then highlights favorite recipes for each vegetable. There are also plenty of butcher’s tips and butchery essentials. So simple, yet so genius. It’s a great gift for a new cook, or someone (like me) who isn’t always quite sure the best way to roast an eggplant.

Phoenix Claws and Jade Trees by Kian Lam Kho – I am determined to learn how to cook Chinese food well this year. Both my kids go to a Chinese Immersion school, and as they are constantly surrounded by Chinese culture, they often want to eat Chinese food (although, I don’t speak Chinese, and always want to eat Chinese food, too). But, in all honesty, I’m not great at making it in my own kitchen. Enter this beautiful, beautiful book by Kian Lam Kho. I’m completely smitten with it, and have been reading it like a novel, unwilling to put it down. Chapters include ‘Harnessing the Breath of a Wok,’ ‘The Virtues of Slow Cooking’, and ‘Enriching With Smoke’; all focusing on mastering techniques while providing references to history and culture. If you are even the teeniest bit interested in cooking Chinese cuisine, this book should be in your cookbook library.

Other cooking books to check out: Small Victories by Julia Turshen is beautiful and so well-written, The Gourmet Kitchen by Jennifer Farley: a great collection of recipes ranging from breakfast to dinner, and of course, dessert, Adventures in Chicken by Eva Kosmas Flores, a book of chicken recipes sure to please everyone.



SaraBeth’s Bakery: From My Hands to Yours by SaraBeth Levine – This might just be my favorite baking book. It’s definitely the one that made me fall in love with laminated doughs. The photographs are quiet and beautiful, there are process shots to help with complicated recipes, and everything I’ve made has turned out perfectly. I’m especially smitten with the puff pastry dough as well as the danish dough. It’s a gorgeous book, and a good addition to any baker’s library.

Handmade Baking by Kamran Siddiqi – Another really great baking book. Kamran’s Quick Puff Pastry recipe is fantastic, and his Everyday Chocolate Cake is A++. The photographs in this one are stunning, and the recipes are classy but approachable, which sort of reminds me of Kamran. (We’ve never met, but he comes across online as kind and classy and thoughtful.) Another book I use all the time.

Pure Dessert by Alice Medrich – Alice Medrich is the baking cookbook queen. I appreciate all her books, they are so well done: flawless recipes, and solid writing and research. Pure Dessert is the first Medrich cookbook I ever owned – all the rest had been checked out time and time again at the library, when I couldn’t afford my cookbook habit. This one is special, and helped pave the way for baking with alternative flours as flavor flours. The Nibby Buckwheat Butter Cookies are holiday favorites.

Tartine Bread by Chad Robertson – Want to make the best sourdough bread ever? Chad Robertson will teach you how. I have made the Basic Country Bread, starting from the beginning and making my own starter, feeding it every day for two weeks, and then then making the leaven and mixing the dough. It was work, but worth all the time. The loaves turned out lovely and delicious, and when I have the time, they are a favorite to make. This is a great gift for anyone interested in making bread.

Seven Spoons by Tara O’Brady – I’ve had a crush on the Seven Spoons blog for a long time – Tara’s writing and photographs are captivating – evoking both thoughtfulness and stillness to one’s soul. Her recipes have always been winners, so when she put out her own book, I knew it would be well-loved in my kitchen. This book is worth every cent for her biscuit recipe alone, and also for the Vietnamese-Inspired Sausage rolls (which I made once at a party and they disappeared in 4 minutes flat), but there are so many other good ones as well: Bostocks, Caramel Apple Pie, Twangy Blueberry Sauce, Bee-Stung Fried Chicken, and Chicken and Couscous with A Punch Relish just to name a few.

How To Eat by Nigella Lawson – The recipes are great, but I love this book for the head notes alone. Witty, honest, thoughtful, and evocative, Ms. Lawson appears to effortlessly express how she feels about food. There are no photographs, just endless word pictures.

Good To The Grain by Kim Boyce – Another cookbook celebrating flavor flours, and another book with A+ recipes. I’ve made a lot of sweets from this book, and they all have been stellar. Chocolate chip cookies made with only whole wheat flour, Pumpkin Pancakes, Pear and Buckwheat Pancakes, Iced Oatmeal Cookies, Banana Walnut Cake, Spelt Pie Dough, Olive Oil Cake, Grahams, Ginger-Peach Muffins, and Onion Jam have all been wonderful.

Ripe by Nigel Slater – Another beautiful book, and one I read over and over. Mr. Slater’s prose is almost poetry. Like a snowflake, the perfectly ripe pear is a fleeting thing. Something to be caught, held tenderly, briefly marveled at, before it is gone forever…An apple is about a loud crunch, a quick hit, a fruit to be enjoyed on the run. The pear is of a more gentle nature, something to take our time over. At its point of perfections, an apple shouts, a pear whispers (from Ripe). I mean, couldn’t it be:

Like a snowflake,
the perfectly ripe pear is a

Something to be caught,
(held tenderly)
briefly marveled at
before it is gone

An apple is about a loud crunch,
a quick hit

the pear is more of a gentle nature,
something to take our time over.
an apple shouts!
a pear


*(And the photographs! Absolutely dreamy. It’s basically a perfect book.)

The Flavor Bible by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg – I use The Flavor Bible constantly. It’s a guide to modern flavor pairings, and an invaluable resource. Making something with peaches but not sure what flavors to use? Just open your Flavor Bible, and in alphabetical order, you’ll have a list of everything: allspice, almonds, basil, brandy, creme fraiche, ginger, hazelnuts, lavender… the list goes on and on. There are also notes from well-know chefs giving their favorite flavor recommendations as well. It’s a great book for anyone who loves to cook and bake.

So there is part one! If you are hesitant to buy books, don’t forget Mr. Darcy’s words: ‘I cannot comprehend the neglect of a family library in such days as these.’

sugar cookies
Happy Tuesday! I hope you all had a lovely Thanksgiving holiday, and survived the shopping madness that followed. After working retail for 10 holiday seasons in a row (with Black Friday and Christmas Eve always days I had to work), I can’t bring myself to venture out anywhere over the after-Thanksgiving weekend, so I enjoyed time inside my house, baking and reading. I have five books going right now; I am currently rereading two books: The Hobbit, which I am reading outloud to my kids for the first time (and they are loving it!), and Pride and Prejudice, which seemed like the perfect snowy weekend read. I’m also still working through this collection of letters. What are you currently reading? I’m always adding to my book list; I’d love suggestions.

“What a delightful library you have at Pemberley, Mr. Darcy!”
“It ought to be good,” he replied, “it has been the work of many generations.”
“And then you have added so much to it yourself, you are always buying books.”
“I cannot comprehend the neglect of a family library in such days as these.”
Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
sugar cookies

sugar cookies
These cookies are another baking recipe I’ve created as a Pulses Ambassador this year. The United Nations has declared 2016 the International Year of the Pulse, and I’ve taken the Pulse Pledge, committing to eat pulses once a week for the next year. Pulses are beans, chickpeas, lentils and dry peas; leguminous crops that are good for your health and good for the environment. I’ll be posting recipes involving them periodically this year, incorporating pulses not only in my savory cooking, but baking recipes as well. I’d love for you to join me! If the Pulse Pledge sounds interesting to you, you can read more about it here. It’s a 10 week commitment, and it doesn’t require elaborate baking: a serving of hummus and a bowl of soup are good ways to take them in, too. Also check out my Vanilla Lavender Cupcakes

This post was sponsored by USA Pulses & Pulse Canada. All opinions are my own.

Read More

sarah kieffer

I wrote this a few years back and revisited it recently; it was a good reminder to myself on what I want the focus of the Holiday season to really be.

The Holiday season has come and gone again. I sit quietly in my home, and although the fire is burning bright, I am chilled from too little sleep. I always feel so reflective in this time, so nostalgic. The ripping of paper, the ringing of laughter, the smell of peppermint and ginger fill my memory again. I am a child, reveling in Christmas cheer, and yet also I am a grown adult, making memories for my own children. Somehow this is all rolled into one big blur; an abstract painting of time and emotions. There is no picture, yet there are many pictures. Happy and sad, joyful and tearful, the silence of night and the clanging bells of morning are all on my canvas. I stare, taking time to ponder their meanings.

My parents did not grow up in normal, well-functioning homes. When my mother, rather reluctantly, tells us stories of her Christmas past, I always find myself amazed at the carelessness of my Grandparents. It’s hard for me to even write this, to recall that my Grandma was the dearest of Grandmothers, but not an attentive mother. All the cousins, those tiny dear little ones looking to the Heavens for Santa to come, were left to their own devices, alone on Christmas Eve, while their parents enjoyed Christmas parties somewhere else. The adults would arrive home too late to recall, and spend Christmas Day miserable and hung over, yet still filling their cups high, trying to drown out their own memories. When I think of this story past, I am reminded of wise words I jotted down years ago, “But then there are days when we feel like we’re auditioning for a starring role in the book of Ecclesiastes. Did any of it matter at all? Did we accomplish anything even remotely unique, or worthwhile, or useful? … [S]ome days are a drawn veil: we just can’t seem to access the meaning in any of it… [T]here are days now when we pan back on a chapter that’s ending, and the overwhelming feeling is, we had so little time. The years vanished. Take care what you hang a life on.”* That last line flitters through my mind frequently. Take care of what you hang a life on. If someone had whispered that to my Grandmother, and if she would have listened…

But these are not my memories. When I think back to my childhood, my holiday experience, there is a rush of sincere joy that fills me. We had an old, rugged Christmas tree that didn’t require water, but there was nothing like the thrill of my dad pulling the giant, torn box it was kept in out of the laundry room. He would mutter under his breath as he assembled it; it was miserable work and that darned thing wasn’t well made, but we were oblivious to his mumbling, dancing around the half-assembled tree, singing songs full of holly and cheer. Joy to the world! My sister and I would grab for the tree decorations, fighting over who got to hang the prettiest ornaments. My little brother would tackle our legs, knocking things out of our hands and singing out of key. We would chase him, yell at him, laugh with him. The smell of sugar cookies, ornately decorated by all of us just before, filled the room. Mom would start a simmering pot of hot chocolate, complete with tiny mini marshmallows. We would start the count down to Christmas Day. It was beautiful, all of it.

Then Christmas Eve would arrive, and the celebrations would begin. There were appetizers at Grandma’s – a table piled with food and more food. In one corner tiny meatballs soaked in a crock pot full of thick sauce, surrounded by bowls full of potato chips in every color. My Grandma’s stash of roasted salty nuts were scattered around the house, along with trays of black olives and carrot sticks. My sister and I always found spots by the cheese tray and filled our small faces full. After all the eating, we would start on gift opening. It was as if my Grandma had purchased a small toy store and moved it into her living room; there were so many boxes and bags we could barely see above them. We were sure we were dreaming. When it was time to leave we were a complete mess, wired on a sugar rush, ready for Christmas Day. My parents would drive us around the city to look at all the Christmas lights, and we would sing softly together. Silent night, Holy night. Our hearts willingly prepared room, and we were calm and bright.

The next morning we would wake up with a start, bouncing off the walls with excitement, racing out to that old tree to see what was under it. And there, somehow, the presents had miraculously doubled, no tripled; my dad having spent much of November and December working overtime so he could watch his children’s faces light up at the sight of so many toys and goodies. After all the paper had been thoughtlessly torn, and the house was completely covered in every kind of wrapping, we would then spend the day together, enjoying our new gifts; enjoying each other. We nibbled on leftover cookies and bars, we sipped hot apple cider. We were content, glad to be in good company. There would be dinner later with family and friends, but those quiet hours together on Christmas were the real beauty of the Holiday.
sarah kieffer
When I compare my Christmas story with my parents’ version, I am always reminded of the power of choice. My mom and dad did not have the happiest memories, but instead of allowing them to dictate their future, they shaped their own way. They made the choice to not follow footsteps in careless wandering, but instead ventured off the path of bitterness and alcoholism, and from scratch made something beautiful and sustainable for their family. They took a right turn into wholeness and healing, beauty and giving. Of course, not everything was picture perfect that day – there was fighting and arguing among us kids, and some passive-aggressive behavior among the adults, but in my mind, those things are overshadowed by the beauty that my parents helped paint for us.

So now, as I study that painting in my mind, intent on those complex lines and shapes, I change my focus. Yes, there are imperfections and flaws, patterns and colors that don’t seem to make sense, but standing back I see the whole. I will now pick up my brush and add to it; colors and strokes to add form and direction that is clear and purposeful. They may seem messy now, and are wet from being freshly painted, but I hope when my daughter and son stand here, looking, they see the beauty and meaning that our family fought and worked for.  We will take care what we hang our life on.

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light;
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring happy bells, across the snow;
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.
From ‘Ring Out Wild Bells‘ Alfred Tennyson

*’Take care what you hang a life on’ is from a letter Linford Detweiler sent out years ago to his devoted fan base. Mr. Detweiler plays and sings in the lovely band Over The Rhine.

ginger cake with crème fraîche buttercream and sugared cranberries | the vanilla bean blog
“Compassion hurts. When you feel connected to everything, you also feel responsible for everything. And you cannot turn away. Your destiny is bound with the destinies of others. You must either learn to carry the Universe or be crushed by it. You must grow strong enough to love the world, yet empty enough to sit down at the same table with its worst horrors.” -Andrew Boyd

The theme of Christmas is a tale of benevolence, no matter what version of the story you are celebrating. We purpose to turn to our neighbor and offer what we have: there are good intentions of shoveling sidewalks, delivering cookies, donating money. Our children are reminded there is more to all of this then receiving, although it gets harder each year to convince them. They are introduced to Rudolph and Charlie Brown and Frosty on the screen, while adults everywhere paste on a smile and try to tune out the ill-will demonstrated across the lands. ‘Peace on earth,’ we sing together, in churches and on snowy walks, while decorating sugar cookies and sitting quietly by the fire. This year the words fall flat; hands that could be stretched out to give are too busy pulling triggers and pounding on keyboards, tearing down with a disturbing ease. Our news feed promotes constant anxiety with war and rumors of war, and depressing options for future leaders.
ginger cake with crème fraîche buttercream and sugared cranberries | the vanilla bean blog

ginger cake with crème fraîche buttercream and sugared cranberries | the vanilla bean blog

ginger cake with crème fraîche buttercream and sugared cranberries | the vanilla bean blog
Even as the last candle on my mantle flickers on these darkest nights of the year, my husband walks into the room and turns on a light. ‘Why are you hiding here in the dark?’ he laughs, and sits down beside me. I look around and see food and water, beer and cheese. There are piles of blankets and a roof that covers too much space; it keeps out rain and snow. I snuggle in next to him and remind myself that all is not lost. We have been given so much, more than we need. Although all spaces seem to be bombarded with hopelessness, we will still choose to do some good with our own hands, to share what we have, even if our hearts are ripped wide open* in the process. We will teach our children to do the same.

The Peace of Wild Things
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

-By Wendell Berry (Nicole from Eat This Poem posted this piece last week, and it’s been a much needed read. Her post about it is very good read, too.)

Read More