Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas: a Retrospective How-To

There is the "kick-start the holidays" Christmas party, the Hanukkah party, the solstice party, the apres-ski  party, the gift exchange with friends, the work Christmas party, the school or church pageant, the neighborhood party, the gift exchange with extended family, the Christmas Eve dinner, the Christmas day brunch and the ensuing feast, the Boxing Day dinner, the leftovers meal, the holiday card night with friends, and the New Year's Party - Did I forget any?

Oh yes, the online Skype party with distant loved ones! Nuts. That one was hard to remember as I didn't turn on my computer much over the big weekend this year. Hopefully an interim weeknight call will make up for it!

From someone who successfully attended or hosted many of these events, my advice would be do them all (unless you're under the weather then by all means stay home with your germs and a good book)! To keep the stress levels low and the multiple gatherings enjoyable don't make, wear, or bring something different to each one. In November and early December bake a few batches of cookies and store them in your freezer. Around this time make a list of all the people you'd like to give a little something to over the holidays - my preference is to give everyone a little something rather than half the people a big something. Make a few homemade gifts (see below) and bring these along as needed. Budget for a couple extra bottles of something at the liquor store this month to keep you in the spirit of things and stock your pantry with bulk nuts (salted and candied or in the shell), oranges and pomegranates and cranberries and decent chocolate. These items can be prettied up for a last minute gifties or placed in nice bowls and set out for unexpected guests. Collect a few pinecones and cedar boughs and light some candles; now you're set for the season.

As for shopping, I love the idea of picking up items throughout the year when you see just the right thing for someone you love, but I never actually do this. While I hope to one day shop with that much foresight, I tend to purchase most of my gifts at the same store. One year it's a bookstore, the next an outdoors store, the year after that a specialty foods store and so forth or try getting everything online from Etsy or give yourself one day at a local craft fair; there are some really fantastic shopping events out there these days. Shows like the Shiny Fuzzy Muddy show here in Vancouver or The One of a Kind Show in Vancouver, Toronto, and Chicago.

Here are a few of my favorite gift-worthy recipes from Christmas 2011:

Candied Orange Peel
 I dipped mine in chocolate and filled mini take out boxes lined with pretty scrap paper to garner oohs and ahhs.

8 oranges, 10 lemons, 6 grapefruits or any combination
3 cups sugar plus more for rolling
3 cups water
3 cups semi sweet dark chocolate chips
  1. Cut the ends off the fruit and standing on one end, follow the curve of the fruit and cut away only the outermost peel leaving most of the white pith on the fruit. Slice lengthwise into 1/4 inch strips. 
  2. In a medium pot of boiling water, 10-20 minutes (longer for lemons and grapefruits). With a slotted spoon transfer peel to dry surface and pat dry with paper towel.
  3. In a medium saucepan, bring sugar and water to a boil, stirring to dissolve sugar. Add peel and simmer until it turns translucent and syrup thickens, 10 minutes. With slotted spoon transfer peel to wire rack set in a baking sheet to catch the drips, separating the pieces as needed.
  4. Let peel dry 1 hour. Toss with cup sugar to coat.
  5. Return to wire rack to dry. Place in a warm (not hot) oven to dry if you find the strips do not dry as quickly as you would like.
  6. Working in batches, melt chocolate in a double boiler and dip ends of strips in the chocolate and lay on rack or brown paper to harden.
  7. Package in boxes with wax paper, decorative paper, and ribbon or enjoy at home with loved ones!

These freeze really well. Be sure not to over bake them! 
2 3/4 cup flour
1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp baking powder
1 cup butter
1 1/2 cups white sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla
  1. Preheat oven to 400 f.
  2. In a medium bowl mix together the flour, salt, and baking powder. 
  3. In a large bowl cream together the remaining ingredients. 
  4. Add the flour mixture to the butter mixture and beat until dough is smooth. If soft, refrigerate until firm, about 2 hours. 
  5. In a large shallow bowl mix together 1/3 cup white sugar and 2 tsp cinnamon  
  6. Shape dough into 1 inch balls and roll in sugar/cinnamon mixture. Place on cookie sheets and press down each ball using the bottom of a glass to flatten to about 1/2 inch thick.  
  7. Bake 8 minutes or until firm around the edges.
And finally, make the pumpkin butter recipe I posted about back in November. 

Now, on to the new year!

Monday, December 19, 2011

What I'm Gifting

Lu Prints napkins and placemats

Paper bird game by French company Djeco

Upcycled guitar string necklace from  Blue Bird Sky in Brooklyn via Etsy

Homemade seasoning salt

Reusable bathtub stickers

Homemade pumpkin butter

Bingo for tots

Homemade candied orange peel au chocolat

Kids' card game

Thursday, December 15, 2011

This is My 'Hood

We moved to our neighborhood in central Vancouver, BC over a year ago. It is a rather unassuming neighborhood; it is very near the centre of the city and yet we'd never heard of it (and my husband has lived here most of his life and in houses all over the city). It is an understated, modest family area with parks and schools and a truly diverse population. In a city where people tend to have a lot or nothing at all, most folks in our neighborhood have a little of everything. There are many first generation Canadians rubbing shoulders with a surprising number of people who've never left, that is, they've grown up, raised families, and are growing old here.

Our playgrounds could use an update and our shopping area is yet to be gentrified but I can walk to almost everything I need: multiple libraries and community centres, big parks, trendy shopping and cafes, and even a mall. We're not so far south that we can't see the North Shore mountains but we're not so close to downtown that we live in a shoebox. We have a yard and garden with raspberries, rhubarb, apple trees, and a clothes line. While we rent, our neighbours on one side have lived in their house for nearly 50 years.

One fascinating online project is bridging the gap between ethnicities, generations, and neighbours in my 'hood. Inside Stories is a combined effort from filmmaker Nettie Wild, web designer Jeremy Mendes, and photographer Shannon Mendes. Here is one of the stories featured on the attractive and interactive site,

Friday, December 9, 2011

This Week's Books

Have You Ever Seen a Smack of Jellyfish? by Sarah Asper-Smith
Other than the surprising and vivid illustrations of this book, I marveled at how genuinely apropos many names are for their respective animal groups. How about a knot of frogs? I have seen one and it is indeed rather knotty. And a crash of rhinos? Well, I imagine that is the noise a group of them would make when plundering scrubby savannah bushes. Or the books namesake, a smack of jellyfish? Well, only one as lucky as myself would know the distinct splat of a small, harmless jellyfish propelled by a random beach brat hitting a bare back and I can tell you, a smack is a suitable word for more than one. I suppose I need not point out just how befitting it is that owls constitute a parliament and zebras a zeal? Yes, a zeal. Not only are the illustrations eye-catching, they are art. You can purchase baby clothes, cards, and other appealing items printed with the artwork on the author's Etsy site.

In the Tall, Tall Grass by Denise Fleming
Another book with big color and a fun theme, "In the Tall, Tall Grass" also portrays a small point of view in a big format. The perspective, that of a  caterpillar traveling through a field, is fun because the critters that look so small to us aren't so small to a caterpillar. My son loves this one; he can read it over and over, finding the caterpillar on each page or pointing out and counting the other creatures. The companion book "In the Small, Small Pond", a Caldecott Honor Book with a frog as the protagonist, is equally as appealing. Fleming's artwork, achieved by pouring colored paper pulp through hand-cut stencils, is splashy and bold and entirely her own. Once I read one of her books I started seeing them everywhere, recognizing them by the art and not the name on the cover.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

My Slushy, Gravelly, Grey Hometown

Winter in my hometown is great, well, winter in the mountains is great. In town, it's grey; the trees, sky, streets and snow are all grey and it's only at altitude that you can break through to blue sky some winter days. Sure, the first snowfall always elicits a certain electric anticipation and Christmas is nice, but the highlights of my adolescent winters, if I wasn't skiing at the local hill, consisted checking out neighbors' Christmas lights, cross country skiing on the old railway tracks, reading a good book, and sledding down the steep unplowed Uphill alleys.

This segment from Whistler's Sherpas Cinema proves me wrong; apparently winter is grey and great in my hometown and it's nice to see some familiar alleyways too.

Monday, December 5, 2011

An Afternoon In

There was a lovely sunset today in my neck of the woods - at 4:15pm! In the slim hour between nap time and nightfall I couldn't get the momentum to bundle up the kids and get outside despite my resolution to always get out twice a day if it isn't pouring rain. And so we played indoors this afternoon - thank goodness for books, blanket forts, and play dough!

I made our play dough based on this recipe and it turned out great. I think the cream of tartar gives it a really smooth consistency. I didn't add any color to mine but I did add cinnamon to one batch and lavender oil to the other and I highly recommend doing so; it makes it more enticing for me to play with it too!

Play Dough Recipe:
1 cup white flour
1/2 cup salt
2 tablespoon cream of tartar
1 tablespoon oil
1 cup water
food coloring, optional

Mix first 4 ingredients in a pot. Add water and mix well. Cook over medium heat for 3 minutes, stirring constantly. Dough will become difficult to stir.
Remove from stove and knead for 5 minutes. If using food coloring add during the kneading process. Store in a covered container in the fridge.