Category Archives: Christmas

Put It Away, Put It Away, Yeah…

Ok, so that’s a poor excuse for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, but once it got stuck in my head, there was nothing I could do.  Besides, it pretty much sums up how happy I am to have all the Christmas stuff put away.

It took me a whole day, minus the Grocery Shopping interruption, to get my house back to normal.  That included taking down all those ornaments I hung around randomly, the giant snowflakes, and of course the tree and things.  But with all my Christmas Spirit, this year, I didn’t have room for all my decor in the little ornament tub I usually use.  Luckily, I had some things laying around to get my stuff tucked up safely.

First, I had a handful of ornaments that didn’t come with packaging.  I remembered that I had about 100 large egg trays from when I was buying 2.5 dozen eggs a week — Husband was on a diet, and by 100, I really mean more like 8.  I grabbed one, and tested some ornaments in the spaces.  The holes were too small for any of my round ornaments, bummer, but it worked perfectly for the long, crazy shaped ones.

Since the tray wasn’t full, and the bulbs were a bit tall, I cut the tray in half, and sat it on top.  Perfect, fit!

I used some tape to seal it up, and placed it carefully into my ornament tub.

I still had some overflow, though.  It was clear I needed to up my box number, and I had the perfect one out in the garage; a liquor box.  Liquor stores always have boxes on hand, and because they are used to hold heavy, glass bottles, they tend to be pretty durable.  Even better, the boxes always have dividers making them perfect for Christmas decor.

I wrapped, and put my tree-shaped jar in the center, wrapped and put all three nutcrackers in another section, and then carefully wrapped the remaining ornaments, like my thrifted antique ones, into other sections.

I was able to get all my decor, with the exception of my pop-sickle snow flakes, into three boxes, and that includes my tree.  I think that’s pretty good, and Husband should be thankful, since he’s the one that has to put it all back into the attic.

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Flat Tire…

This Christmas, we were trying out new traditions.  First, there was Husband’s amazing smoked turkey, definitely a keeper, and my bacon jam, seen here, which was delicious.  But the crowning glory of any meal is the dessert, and while mine tasted pretty good, its creation was an epic disaster!

You see, I was reading through one of my Cooks Illustrated a few months back, and came across a creation I had never heard of before:  a Paris Brest.  Now before you start humming songs from Moulin Rouge, and dancing a cancan, the Paris Brest is named after the bicycle race it was created to commemorate.  It’s a pastry made of inner and outer layers of pate choux — the same dough used for eclairs and cream puffs, made to resemble a bike tire, hence the title.

When I read the original article, the pastry sounded fancy, and perfect for a special dinner.  I thought I’d make for Christmas.  Turns out I should have read the recipe, too.  It was intense.

First, you have to make caramel, with chopped nuts, and let that set.  I followed the instructions carefully, and brought the sugar and water to a boil, just like it said, and then left it alone.  Within seconds, it burned, and I had to start over.  Things weren’t looking good.  On the second try, I kept the heat low, and it all worked out.

I also had to toast my nuts, which I toasted just to the edge of burnt.  It seemed to be a theme.  After I mixed in my nuts, which I substituted pecan for the called-for hazelnuts to give my brest a Texas twist, I poured the caramel onto a baking sheet.  Once the set, I broke it up into pieces, added it to my food processor with a bit of oil, and pulverized it to a praline paste.  This, it turns out, can be made ahead of time, and sit in the fridge until needed.  I wish I had read that before the 24th.

After I had the praline paste made, it was time to work on the dough.  Talk about another feat.  Turns out that pate choux isn’t your standard butter, water, and liquid, dough.  No, it’s something you have to cook on the stove, and then pulse in food processor, before adding it back to the stove to cook a bit more!  Ugh.  Still, I did it.  I measured, mixed, cooked, pulsed, added eggs, cooked again until, according to instructions, “tiny beads of fat begin to form on the bottom of the pan.”  What?!  I can only assume that I cooked it enough.

I then piped my dough onto paper-lined sheet pans, to create 8″ circles; one with a plain tip, and one larger one with a star tip.

Unfortunately, that star-tipped ring is supposed to be three layers, in pyramid form.  I ran out of dough.  By this time, it was getting late, and I hadn’t had enough wine to relax my brow.  I cooked it all anyway, hoping it would rise.  A lot.

It didn’t.

It did turn out nice and golden, though.

Again, it turns out you can make this at least 24 hours in advance.

But we’re still only halfway through the process of this monster of a dessert.  Really.

I still had to make the pastry cream.

To make the pastry cream, you have to separate 5 eggs, beat the egg yolks, bloom some gelatin, cook the eggs with butter and sugar, all while stirring constantly.  Think of making non-instant pudding, or custard for ice cream. I wish I had a stool.  Once the cream is all cooked, you have to strain it, and let it set up in the fridge.  For at least three hours!  Again, I should have read the recipe!

So once the cream has set up, you mix in the praline paste, and then whip up some heavy cream.  This is then folded into the pastry cream to lighten it up, and this new concoction is put back into the fridge to firm up even more for another 45 minutes.  Turns out that this can be made at least three days in advance.  Doh.

To assemble the Paris Brest, you cut the fancy ring, pipe on a bit of cream, place the smaller ring on top, pipe on loads more cream, and finish off with the top piece of the fancy ring.  It should look like this…

Image taken from here.

Mine did not.  My outer ring was nowhere near large enough to slice sandwich style, so I improvised.  I tore my rings up, dolloped cream on top, and stuck another ring slice on top.

Definitely not as pretty as the professional up there, but it did taste good.  Imagine a pecan and praline cream puff, because that is what it tasted like.  Would I make it again?  No.  It was too much of a head ache.  Sure, I could reduce my headache by making the parts in advance, say the cream on one day, the praline another, and the pate choux the day of.  But if I ever see this on a menu, where I don’t have to stand over the stove, furrowing my brow, and biting my nails, just praying it all turns out right, I’m so ordering it.

So moral of the story?  The French are nuts about their cooking.  Oh, and read recipes days in advance of making them.

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Last Minute Christmas Decor…

Even though it’s after the Christmas Holiday, and the floor is strewn with torn paper and bows, I still have two Christmas Pledge decorations that I did, but didn’t have enough days to post.  They were simple, and quick, and you never know, you just might need an idea for next year, or a late family Christmas celebration — we still have one last hurrah on the 8th of January.

First, my three nutcrackers.  I have a soft-spot for old guys, and nutcrackers are the embodiment of old man.  I don’t go crazy.  I’m not really into all the different “collectors” versions of nutcrackers, and up until this year, I only owned one; a short little, Pole/Russian looking guy that I picked up at the dollar store during our first Christmas.  He’s short, stout, and comforting, but this year, I decided to add some regal scouts to the army.

Of course, I went to the dollar to pick up recruits, and came home with three strict looking lads.

 

I wanted to paint them a regal white, so I carefully pulled all their hair off.  I’m sure it was demoralizing, but I promised them it was standard military issue.

Then I took them out into the garage, and blasted them all white.

It took over 6 coats, and some parts still weren’t fully covered, but they were good enough for high shelf.  I can always spray them again next year.

And once they were dry, I used some good glue to stick their hair and beards back one.  I know that many of the modern takes on the nutcracker shaves them down to prepubescent boys, but since I like that they are old men, and their crazy hair styles are such a large factor, I just had to put it all back.

I love how they turned out.

The other item I ticked off my list  was hanging some ornaments from the dining room ceiling.  I picked up a managerie of cheap, plastic ornaments, and simply used clear push pins and thread to hang them at varying heights.

What do you think?

I’m not completely sold on it.  In some ways, I feel it accentuates my ugly light fixture and popcorn finish on the ceiling.  I did get several compliments on it, and I think with a few tweaks, it could really shine next year.  Of course, I’ll be sure to share!

And I can’t wait to share with you the treats I made for Christmas dinner, and the gifts that Husband gave me this year.  He really made up for the last two years!

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I Sure Do Like Those Christmas Cookies, Sugar…

I wanted to get out one more post before Christmas, and the most amazing, age-defying cookies seemed to fit the bill.  And these cookies really are age-defying.  They get tastier the older they are; all good things do, wine, scotch, cheese… you get the idea.

This cookie recipe is my go-to for anything cookie related.  It’s that yummy.  I used it for my robot cookies a year ago, but I’ve never shared the recipe with you, choosing instead to keep it as a secret for myself.  This is your Christmas Present.

You start with 2 sticks of butter, two eggs, a pinch of salt, 3/4 cups of sugar, 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla, and 3 1/2 cups of flour.  You are supposed to have softened butter, but I never remember ahead of time, so I just cut the butter into cubes, and then cream the butter and sugar together.

Once, it’s nice and light, you add your eggs, and vanilla, then salt and flour.  Mix until the dough comes together, and dump onto some cellophane.

Wrap it up nice and tight, and stick it in the fridge for at least 30 minutes to rest.

After your dough takes its little nap, roll it out until it’s close to 1/4″ thick; if it’s much thinner than that, the cookies will be more cracker like, and brown faster.  I don’t have the muscles to roll out the entire bunch of dough at once, so I divide it in half, and put it back into the fridge.

Then use something to cut the dough into shapes; I used Christmasy shapes.

And place them on a sheet pan lined with paper.  These cookies don’t spread, so you can place them fairly close to one another.

Then you bake them for 10-15 minutes, in a 350 degree oven.

The browner cookies are the ones that I got a little too thin.  They still taste good, though.

Once they are cooled, ice the cookies however you choose.  I use the Betty Crocker cookie icing in a bag.  It tastes good, is cheap, and hardens like I want.

Hey, I never said I was the Martha Stewart of cookie decorating.  Just trust me when I say these are addictive, and quite possibly the only reason why Santa comes to my house every year.

Merry Christmas!   Now go make some cookies!

___________________________________________________________________

Butter Cookies

Ingredients:

3 1/2 Cups Flour

2 Sticks Butter

2 Eggs

3/4 cup Sugar

1/2 Teaspoon Vanilla

Pinch of Salt (I use a heaping 1/8 Teaspoon)

________________________________________________________

Preheat oven to 350

Cream butter and sugar in a mixer, then add eggs and vanilla.

Mix in salt, and then add flour a little at a time until all is mixed in, and dough comes together.

Shape dough into ball, wrap, and place in fridge to rest for a minimum of 30 minutes.

Roll dough until 1/4″ thick, and cut into shapes.

Place shapes on lined cookie sheet, and bake 10-15 minutes, or until just beginning to brown on edges.

Allow cookies to cool completely before icing.

(These cookies really will taste better the older they get, so restrain yourself, or you’ll really be missing out!)

Enjoy!

 

 

 

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Deck the Walls…

With Christmas Cards?  Yeah, I’m still not sure if this is a hit or a miss.  I’ll let you guys weigh in…

A few weeks ago, when we started getting Christmas cards in the mail, I decided I had to do something with them.  Usually, I just set them up on the entertainment center, but since I subjected myself to my own crazy Christmas pledge, I thought I’d do something better.

At first, I thought about creating one of those holiday wreaths out of the cards, but that has been done.  Then, I thought of garland.  I’ve never seen that done with Christmas cards, so why not give it a shot.  So I strung some of my thrifted beads, and used paper clips and ornament hooks to hang my cards.

From the floor, the paper clips aren’t so noticeable.

 

In the center, I hung some dollar store bells, and a large clump of mistletoe.  I never pay for mistletoe, and I hang some every year.  How?  I cut it off of trees along the side of the road.  Mistletoe grows on trees, sort of like a lichen, but not as nice for the tree.  Once the leaves fall from the trees, it’s very easy to spot.  It’s the only green clump of leaves to be seen.

Yep, that’s all mistletoe, and it could kill that tree if someone like me doesn’t come around to cut it out for home decor.  See, I told you I’m green!  Mistletoe typically grows high on the tee, but luckily for me, I always seem to find some at my 5′-3″ level.

Once I got my clump, I tied it up with some ribbon I had on hand, and hung it up.

So what do you think?  Is this a hit, or a miss?

I’m leaning toward miss.  But I think the idea is good.  I think what I may do, is something more like this paper garland, found at Curbly

What I’m thinking, is punching circles from each card I receive, and adding it to the paper garland every year.  I think it could be neat over time, especially with so many photo Christmas cards sent every year.  Now I just have to buy a punch, and find a sewing machine needle that is up to the task of stitching through card stock.

Oh, and lest you think I’m overly popular, nine of those Christmas cards are from my own stash, but as I swap mine out with real ones once they come in the mail.

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Filed under Christmas, DIY, Fun and Free Ideas, Home Design, Save my Wallet, Save the Earth

Hanging Out…

With Christmas quickly approaching, and family coming to my house, I’m in full countdown mode.  I have tons to do, and adding a bit more Christmas Cheer is part of it.  I decided to hang a few ornaments around the house.  First, I hung three of those really heavy, antiquey orbs that I found at the thrift store, seen here.

I have this odd little window next to my front door, and it seemed the perfect place to show off some special ornaments that are too heavy for the tree.  I just used push pins on the side of the wall that is rarely seen, and some gold thread.

Sure, I’m a little nervous that an orb may crash to the floor, but they look so lovely hanging there.

And I didn’t stop there!  Oh no.  I even decided to decorate the bathroom.

When I redesigned Son’s bathroom, I created a towel rack out of a holly bush we had cut down.  Seen here.  Well, it seemed a shame, since Son’s bathroom is also the guest bath, to leave those branches empty when I had tons of left over ornaments laying around.

The project took less than 30 minutes, and I hope will give a smile to the guest who come to the house.  Have you guys decorated any rooms you normally wouldn’t?

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Dreaming of a White Christmas…

OK, so if you know me at all, you know that the above statement isn’t so much true.  Me and snow aren’t really what you would call friends.  I mean, sure, snow is pretty, but only for the first day, and only if you get to stay inside with a crackling fire, and a cup of hot coffee, or mulled wine, depending on your what you prefer.  Luckily, I live in Texas, and though it does seem to snow every year, it doesn’t hang around long, and it hardly every snows on Christmas.  But there is something about that Rockwell look of a glowing house, Christmas tree in the window, smoke drifting out of the chimney, and snow swirling about that seems so Christmasy.  And this year, with my Popsickle snowflakes, seen here, I’ve already said yes to snow; or at least we’ve come to a truce.

You see, a few weeks ago, while digging for Christmas Project supplies at my local Dollar Tree, I came across these large plastic snow flakes.  They were as large as my face, and I couldn’t think of anything to do with them, so I left them behind.  Then, I had an epiphany a few days later, and ran back to purchase 18 of the suckers.  Yes, that’s $18.00 worth of plastic snowflakes, the size of my face.  I figured, what I didn’t need, I could always return.

I then measured, and drew a full-scale mock-up of the space I wanted to hang my flakes.  I’ve sung the praises of the full-scale mock-ups before, here and here.  And then I laid my snowflakes out in different patterns.

I quickly decided that the 6 patterned group was too much, and the 5 was the way to go.  This is why you do mock-ups!  But there was more to do.  The snowflakes came a hazy-clear colour, and I wanted a more statement-making white.  Of course, you all know what that means.  I reached for my nearest can of spray paint.

I even ran out of my good paint halfway through, and switched to a can of Husband’s cheap stuff to finish the job.  Can you tell?  Even better, since these things aren’t going to be hanging in my house, are clearish, and won’t be seen up close, I only painted one side.  When they were dry, and Husband was finally home to help me, we hung them on the front porch using fishing line and push-pins.  Yeah, it was a really complicated system.

I may add some weights to the bottoms to keep my flakes from swinging too much, but I’m loving the over-all design.  Not bad for a mere ten clams.  Of course, ignore the ugly brownish paint; I’ll repaint in something more cheery some day, you know, when it’s not snowing and all.

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Fruit….On a Stick…

Son has been going to school for an entire semester, and although I joined the PTA, there hadn’t been any meetings, and I hadn’t met with any of the other parents.  So the other night, when a fellow mom called to asked me to help out with the class Christmas Party, I jumped at the chance.  She asked that I make some fruit kabobs, and even suggested which fruits to use, so I didn’t have much reason to say no.  It all seemed overly easy.  So I purchased some skewers, strawberries, dark grapes, and bananas, and then, just to put my own spin on it, I picked up some white chocolate, candy pearls, and silver sprinkles.

First, I laid out all my skewers…

and cut them all in half.

Then, I sorted through my boxes of strawberries, pulling out all the smaller ones; these snacks were for three year olds after all.  I cut the ends off the berries, and set Son to work, picking the grapes apart.  Once we had our fruit separated, Son and I carefully slid the grapes onto the skewers, and then capped them off with the strawberries.

While Son finished up the skewering, I melted the white chocolate in a glass jar, using the microwave.  I used the jar because I wanted something tall and narrow, you know, to aid in the dipping process ahead.

That’s right, I took each of our skewered fruits, and dipped the strawberry portion into the chocolate.  Then I carefully placed my skewers into the slots of my pasta strainer to dry.

I let them sit over night, and then, just before the party, I sliced up a banana, and slid them onto the kabobs from the bottom.  I then covered them in my sprinkles, I wanted them to look festive, and placed them on a platter.

All the parents raved about them, and more than a few asked for the recipe.  One kid asked for another one, and when I suggested that he eat his sandwich first, gobbled it up in two bites.  I gave him more fruit.

Hopefully, I’ve shown my stuff, and these will be my invitation into the inner PTA circle.  I’ll keep you posted.

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Oh Christmas Tree, Oh Christmas Tree….

How smelly are your branches…

As the school year inched closer to Christmas, I realized that Son should probably give his teacher a gift.  She has really taught him a lot, and he really likes her.  So I asked Son what he would like to give her for Christmas.  True to form, he answered with something a bit off.  First, he said, “a flower!”  That seemed sweet enough, but before I could even comment on his suggestion, he changed his mind.  “No, I’ll give her a tree!”

Me:  A tree?  Really?

Son:  Yes, a tree.  A tiny one.

Me:  Ok, I think we can do that!

I remembered I had once seen a local store selling small rosemary trees around this time of year, and  I figured they might still, so I sent Husband to check it out — he works closer to the store.   Unfortunately, they only had spruces, or something piney; no rosemary.  With only one day left to find a gift, I had resigned myself to giving her some stamps, or something else teacherly, if I couldn’t find the tree at one last store.  I walked up to my local Home Depot, and there she was, the tree, not the teacher.  I plopped down 12 buckaroos, and stashed her in my car.  Then I went crazy.

I bought a small glass angel, and a jingle bell garland from the dollar store.

In the end, the tree looked pretty good, and Son was so excited to give it to her.

 

Unfortunately, I forgot to photograph the gift with a real camera.  Call me lost in excitement.

One teacher mouthed to me, as I dropped Son off at school, “That’s Awesome!”  And Son’s Teacher wrote a nice thank you note.  When I asked Son what she said when he gave it to her, he said…

“She said thank you, and I told her it was a stinky tree, and that it needed a bath.”

Of course, you did, Son.  Of course you did.

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If At First You Don’t Succeed…

Find a new method…

Last year, I picked up a gingerbread house kit thinking it would be a fun family activity sort of thing.  Ignore the fact that I’m an architect, and a home maker, and still picked up a kit.  It was cheap, and looked simple and fun.

I actually have a bit of history with gingerbread houses.  My first grade teacher got a student teacher every year just so he could escape to a secret room in the school, and build elaborate gingerbread houses.  Every student in his class got to help at some point, although we mostly just ate the candies, and he displayed them in the front office.  Just so you wouldn’t think I was kidding, I decided to look my old teacher up on the world wide web, and he sent me some pictures.  I won’t lie, I was shocked, and pretty stoked, but now I have proof.  See?

 

Now, I’m sure the Bud Light sign isn’t hanging in the front office of the elementary school, that wouldn’t be right.  It’s probably in the teacher’s lounge; now you know why you’re never aloud in there.

Truly, you can see that I had a very talented teacher, and since he made ginger construction seem so easy, I felt I had nothing to fear last year when I picked up a kit from my local Target.  Here’s how it went down…

I laid out all the pieces neatly, and then read the instructions.

We then stood the walls up, and squeezed out the icing to glue the roof on.

Once the roof was on, things were looking pretty good, and Son was getting excited about the fun part, so I started to apply the icing to the rooftop.

The icing was really stiff, and this is where things started to go down hill.  Husband decided that the icing just needed to be warmed up so I could spread it.  Being a man, he went big.

Sure, the torch warmed up the icing, but it also burnt it in some spots.  This project was turning into a comedy show, but we plowed ahead, and the icing got spread.  Son finally got to help, and place the candy on the roof.  And then disaster struck.

First the roof plates began to slide, and then the nicely placed gum drops on the roof ridge began to sink.  Son tried his best to save them, but it wasn’t in the cards.  This picture says it all.

We abandoned ship, and just ate the candy instead.  Apparently, gingerbread houses aren’t child’s play.  Humbug.

So this year, when Son asked about doing another gingerbread house, I was decidedly against it.  Then he brought me the kit he found at our local Hancock Fabric, and I smiled.  It was perfect.  It was made of foam!  So technically, it wasn’t a gingerbread house at all, but it looked similar to one, and again, it was cheap.  Even better, I felt we’d have more success with this one.  I let Son put it together while I worked on my plaid table cloth, more on that here.

He had a little trouble getting the walls to log together, but once the roof plates were on, he was on his own.  I told him to look at the picture on the box, and then to use his brain and his imagination.  I’m always telling him to do that.  He worked pretty hard…

and after 20 minutes or so, his house was looking pretty close to what was pictured on the box.  I was impressed, but I guess it was just too cookie-cutter for him, and he began to remodel.  In the end, it looked like this…

Nice and tame in the front…

but there’s a party in the back.  Maybe his neighborhood has an HOA.

I think this is a tradition we can keep up with.

As an aside, I still can’t believe my old teacher is one, still teaching, and two, still making gingerbread houses.  Funny thing, part of my mind feels for certain that he must be a hundred years old by now —heck he had a beard, although my logical side says that it’s entirely possible that he was my parents’ age when I was in his class, and may only be in his fifties. Now that I think about it, his beard wasn’t grey….

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