Monday, December 30, 2013

Christmas Eve

The girls' first Shirley Temples by the tree

I'm posting some photos of Christmas and Christmas Eve a little behind schedule.  But the fact that I'm late about it means I had a great Christmas.  Just the kind of Christmas I needed.  Busy, bustling with anticipation  for weeks until Christmas morning when I just get to sit back and relax and watch the enjoyment on the faces of my loved ones.  After all the work preparing for Christmas I spend the days after just being lazy and eating good food!  It's a wonderful stay-cation in our house the days after Christmas.  I curled up on the floor with a pillow every afternoon for a cat nap.  I was fantastically lazy.

But before then...I was a Christmas mad-woman.  After our Christmas party I had just two days to prepare for our own big Christmas Eve dinner.  I brined our turkey on Monday so it would be ready for the oven on Christmas Eve morning.

Christmas Eve is just as much fun and just as special of a day for our family as Christmas Day is.  My childhood was full of Christmas Eve memories.  It was an evening I looked forward to all year long.  As an adult, with my own family and being so far away from our extended family; it's very important to create our own traditions and hold true to them every year.  We started making a big Christmas Eve dinner in the Philippines and it's become a tradition.  Here in Ethiopia, I've made a traditional American Thanksgiving meal on Christmas Eve for the last two years.

I started the mood off on Christmas Eve morning with a little hot chocolate picnic in the family room for the girls.  They drank it with peppermint sticks and cinnamon sugar toast.  When they saw the tray coming up the stairs they cheered.

This year Christmas Eve was just the five of us.  The anticipation and excitement was so thick in the air I could taste it.  The girls all got their fancy Christmas dresses on early in the morning to be ready for our big Christmas dinner.  I donned a frock as well but quickly topped it with an apron to get to work in the kitchen.  Justin worked most of the day on Christmas Eve so as he was kissing me goodbye with is coffee in hand, I was pulling out our bird and chopping onions for the stuffing.
Along with Christmas Eve dinner, I made cinnamon rolls for Christmas morning.  Something I've been doing for years.  Making them the night before and just popping them in that morning makes my life easier.
The turkey was stuffed and in the oven by 9:30AM which left plenty of time for all the rest of the meal.  Addie helped me peel the potatoes for the big bowl of mashed potatoes.  Turns out she's completely capable of mashing them as well with my hand mixer.  This year I was very excited to learn that my KitchenAid hand mixer makes smoother fluffier potatoes than my big stand mixer.

During the entire process of preparing the meal, our Christmas music is playing and I'm sipping wine.  At some point Bella came skipping into the kitchen and cheerfully asked me. "Can I help you with anything Mommy?", which brought me to tears.  Such generosity and joy on Christmas Eve and a little bit of wine in my system and I was a blubbery idiot.  All the girls helped and it is that much more fun to have my sweet daughters hands in the kitchen helping and making messes with me.
Sneaking bites of the sweet potato casserole.  That was me.

Justin kept the girls entertained during the last painful hour waiting for dinner.  They read fairy tales and danced to Christmas music.

The girls were giddy to cut into the turkey.  Justin and I as well.  We get one turkey a year and it's such a glorious treat in Ethiopia.  To prepare a traditional American meal like this in Addis, is no small feat.  It's a lot of work but totally worth it.

 Ashlynn sneaked into the turkey before it was served and just kept saying, "more", and picking off bites.  We had to steer her towards the table.  A spoonful of sweet potato casserole had her interested until she discovered the holy grail of a turkey meal-the mashed potatoes and gravy!  Once she discovered gravy, it was game over for all other options.  The girls adored the turkey and sweet potatoes while Justin and I oohed and aaahed over the stuffing.  As a kid I hate the stuff, what was I thinking?!  It's perfection with gravy on top.  Oh man, we were in a food coma pretty quick.

Addie wrote a beautiful note for Santa Claus and carefully laid out cookies for him and a carrot for the reindeer.

Addie and Bella giggled in their beds for a few minutes after bedtime and Addie even had to peak downstairs with the pretenses of getting more water.  But once they were out, they were out and Justin and I could enjoy a slice a pie (pecan pumpkin perfection) and watch thirty minutes of It's a Wonderful Life (our Christmas Even tradition) before we were about ready to pass out.

I heard a little rustling down stairs later that night and had to go see if Santa had found us in Ethiopia.  Sure enough, he did and he filled the stockings and tree.  I didn't sleep much that night after that!  I couldn't wait for Christmas Day.

Christmas pants 2013

I love the tradition of my husband's Christmas pants.  His grandfather wore them every year on Christmas Eve to the country club.  I had the pleasure of attending one of these evenings and he looked so classy in these pants.  He was a tall handsome man and he wore a white turtle neck tucked in, loafers on his feet.  Think classic Annapolis, MD.  Justin always admired the pants and when his grandfather passed away, his grandmother passed the pants on to Justin.  It was a very touching surprise.  Not many people get to say they inherit something quite so close to their heart from a loved one.  Justin had them tailored for his shorter frame and has been wearing them for Christmas ever since.  They are wool and it's comical that we haven't had a cold Christmas for years.  In Manila, Justin sweated in the pants on Christmas.  It's a tad better in Ethiopia but there is definitely no need for wool.  But the pants make it Christmas and it's festive.  Everyone loves the story.  And Justin wears them well.  Here's to many years with the Christmas pants.

Christmas party report-out

The last three weeks flew by and I didn't have a chance to post anything about our Christmas party (or Christmas for that matter).  It was so much fun and everyone was in the holiday spirit.  The entire day with people bustling about, jovial laughing, glasses clinking, and all the delicious food smells made me that much more excited for Christmas.

The party was a potluck which is wonderful for two reasons.  I don't have to break my back to provide enough food for everyone and I get to taste everyone else's cooking.  Some highlights from the food brought by others were the cheesy baked grits, BBQ green beans, spinach dip, and potato salad.

Our traditional Christmas cookies, pecan crescents, nutted thimbles and almond rocca

I prepared desserts for the party. I made lavender lemon bars and ginger oatmeal cream pies along with all the usual Christmas desserts I make.  Once again the flourless chocolate peppermint patt

y cake flew off the table.  I should have made two of those.

The pretty candy cane cake was delicious and gorgeous.  Such a  treat for anyone who loves candy canes. I tried my hand at homemade old fashioned fudge this year since it's one of my absolute favorite holiday treats.  After plenty of frustration I was able to produce two batches, one salted dark chocolate and the other mint chocolate.  Everyone seemed to enjoy it because it was gone rather quickly!
Making old fashioned fudge at this high of altitude proved more difficult than I imagined.  
I don't have any photos of the real food, mostly because it flew off the platters.  I made two rosemary roasted pork loins, two batches of curried chicken rolls and two batches of scalloped potatoes.  As well as smoked salmon dip, and roasted red pepper and goat cheese terrine.  I'll be honest, it wasn't enough.  I should have had a few other main course selections because they didn't last on the table more than ten minutes.  Maybe something easy like lasagna or a rice dish.  Even a pasta salad would have added something hardy to the table.

But the drinks were flowing and no one seemed to complain of the food going so fast.  It was nice because it was an open house so people trickled in all afternoon with dishes to add to the table.

I have so much fun planning the drink menu for parties now.  People enjoy the details and like to have instructions for a pre-planned cocktail.  I really had no idea how much people would enjoy the cocktail I chose.  Now I know to prepare for twice as many ingredients for the drinks.

 Non alcoholic spiced fruit wassail.  A fun option for something kid friendly and festive. If people wanted they could add a dash of bourbon or rum.  But I think it tasted great all on it's own.  It was super easy to make and I omitted any additional sugar in the recipe.  For a drink that combines three store bought fruit juices, it definitely doesn't need any extra sugar.

Spiced Fruit Wassail from Of Tide and Thyme cookbook
2 1/4 cups pineapple juice
2 quarts apple juice or cider
1 cup lemon juice
2 cups orange juice
a little cheesecloth bundle of cinnamon bark and cloves tied up tight (1/2 cup bark or a few cinnamon sticks and 2 Tbsp whole cloves)

Just add all the ingredients and let it simmer with the spices for a few hours.  Be prepared for this to go quickly.  I doubled this recipe and I should have doubled it again!  The kids loved the red and white striped straws.

Cinnamon apple martini.  This was a huge hit among the adults, men and women alike.  I came up with this recipe because I ordered two pounds of cinnamon red hot candy for Christmas.  I knew I wanted to create a cocktail that used these spicy candies I just didn't know what it was until three days before the party.  As I searched online, I realized I would never have just the right ingredients for some of the cocktail recipes I was finding.  But I wasn't deterred.  This is what cooking in Ethiopia is all about-substitution.  So, I used what I had and it was simple and delicious.

Ingredients for Cinnamon Apple Martinis
1 bottle vodka
1 and a half cups cinnamon red hot candies
1 bottle of cranberry apple juice

Two days before the party I poured the vodka over the red hot candies in a decanter and let them dissolve. Swirl and stir the candies from the bottom often.  You could pour the candies straight into the bottle of vodka to make it even easier.  Just use a funnel.  After almost all the candies were dissolved, I strained the cinnamon infused vodka over a fine mesh strainer to remove the waxy like candy coatings that were left in the alcohol.  You're left with a lovely red sweet cinnamon vodka.

Sara's Cinnamon Apple Martini
1 shot cran-apple juice
1 shot cinnamon vodka.

Shake with an ice cube and serve with the ice.  The colder the better. Serve in short martini glasses.  I like stemless just because they can serve as a pretty glass for lots of cocktails, not just martinis.  I loved this drink for the flavor, but also for the festive red color.  Gorgeous!

Hot Chocolate bar.  This is such a fun concept and I could have done so much more when it comes to options for this drink but I decided to pay tribute to one of our favorite decadent desserts we enjoyed in South Africa.  Thick hot chocolate served with a scoop of chocolate ice cream.  It's really quite simple.  Soft peppermint sticks and peppermint Schnapps for the adults made the drink more holiday festive.  This was a huge hit for the kids.  Those peppermint sticks went quick!

I cheated on this drink and used pre-made cocoa drink powder and just added water.  I made it nice and thick and added vanilla to the mix.  The pot sat on the stove simmering during the party so people just had to bring a mug to the kitchen and get a ladle of cocoa and a scoop of ice cream.  Pure decadence.

The gingerbread people kits were a hit and I think it saved some mess and heartache from the parents about this or that.  All I had to do was life the box of kits outside and let the kids have-at it.  One mom helped snip the ends of the frosting bags with scissors but after that, I didn't hear any issues.

We had a silly white elephant gift exchange and 24 people participated by bringing a gift.  I ended up with a lovely latte style coffee mug which seemed unbelievable after seeing a can of boiled peanuts opened as well as a umbrella hat and a dust pan.  Justin came away with a new mop!  HA!  I liked how the game brought everyone at the party together.  Lots of our friends from all sorts of different places in Addis all got to know one another better when you're stealing one another gifts and laughing at the hilarity of some of them.  Such fun.

All in all, the party was a success, thanks to all our enthusiastic friends who brought good food and plenty of wine.  What a way to kick of the holiday party season!

Thursday, December 19, 2013

gingerbread people kits

Making cut-out cookies and letting the children frost and decorate them as a party activity is pretty much my go-to for all our parties.  We've done it for years at our Halloween parties and I continue to do it because the kids love it so much.  But let's be honest.  It's usually a big mess and kind of chaotic to get all the kids seated and with cookies and a kid-friendly knife with little pots of colored frosting.  There's plenty of jostling for the best sprinkles and colors and, well, yeah, it's a nightmare.  I've relied on helpful moms and dads at our parties to assist me in getting this process to work.  It's not easy.  Fun, but not easy.

For our Christmas party this year, I wanted the kids to decorate gingerbread people but I didn't want the hassle of it all.  I started making the gingerbread people and as I was rolling out the dough, had a bright idea to make little kits.  Prepackaged gingerbread people kids, complete with cookies, frosting and candy.  Perfection!  No fighting over the candy bowls or frosting knifes.  Everyone gets the same amount and it also limits the kids from eating handfuls of the decorative candy.  
This idea created more work for me because I packaged all the frosting in tiny sealed bags (the kids will pipe the frosting from the end of the bag by sniping a corner with scissors), and the candy, so I had to sort out a small amount of this and that for 40 gingerbread people kits.  Okay, so this was a lot more work for me. But, it will pay off on party day!
To be honest, the tedious part was rolling, cutting and baking 80 gingerbread people.  The minute I started, I was regretting my bright idea.  I pressed on (pun intended) and each gingerbread people kit is actually a little family.  A dad, mom and baby gingerbread family.  It was Addie's idea and it's pretty darn cute.  
Luckily, I had a stash of Christmas printed cellophane bags with twist ties because  my mother keeps me supplied.  Thank goodness.  
frosting, to pipe just snip one corner at the bottom
The great thing is that the kids can grab and bag and take it outside to a table and decorate their little gingerbread family whenever they want.  This way, we don't have to decide on at time to schlep all the supplies outside and deem it "gingerbread decorating time". 

I think the kids are going to love it!

homemade Christmas sachets

I think it's nice to give your children's teachers a little something for Christmas.  It was something we did when I was in school and I want to continue the gesture.  It doesn't have to be something big or fancy or even store bought.  I'm in favor of homemade gifts because it gets the kids involved.

Last year, we gave our teachers homemade berry wreaths.  This year we chose something significantly easier.  Addie was able to help me make these pretty little Christmas spice sachets for her and Bella's teachers.  It was extremely inexpensive and very quick.  You could use any herb or spice for this type of sachet.  Lavender or chamomile would be lovely.  We have access to cinnamon and cloves quite easily here and they are so quintessentially Christmas, so I thought it would be a nice touch.  We put these sachets in our car or in the bathroom and it smells amazing.  You could use them anywhere.  If you wanted, you could take off the bow and bell and use it to spice wine or cider.

What you need:
Cheesecloth (I like the organic unbleached kind)
Cinnamon bark
Whole cloves
Bakers twine
Jingle bells

We cut the cheesecloth in 8 inch by 8 inch squares roughly.  A big handful of the spices went in the middle.

We gathered up the corners and tied a tight knot with the bakers twine,  added a jingle bell, ribbon and a personalized tag.  At the end, we cut the cheesecloth on top to make the pieces even and pretty.

Addie wrote out her tags but I finished Bella's.
Aren't they sweet?

We packaged them in a little paper Christmas bag and the girls delivered them the next day.

Monday, December 16, 2013

prepping for our Christmas party

Less than a week from our second annual Christmas party, I've got my prep lists ready.  Half the meal is already frozen and ready for the oven this coming Saturday.  The other half, I will make this week.  This includes a handful of fun holiday cocktails.

Spiced fruit wassail (with or without liquor)
Hot chocolate with chocolate ice cream and peppermint Schnapps (or not for the kiddos)
Cinnamon martinis (still working on this recipe but I have visions of cinnamon  red hots dissolving at the bottom of the glass)

Still plenty of work to do.  I've got lavender lemon bars and oatmeal ginger cream pies that are new for me as well as a gorgeous flour-less peppermint patty cake and a candy cane layer cake I can't wait to try.

What's your thoughts on bacon jam?  The recipe calls for bourbon, maple syrup, spices and brown sugar.  I think it sounds heavenly with bread and cheese.

This year, it was essential that I have old fashioned Christmas candy for the holidays.  You know the stuff, the ribbon candy and the little colorful hard candy with pictures of flowers and such.  It's so perfectly traditional and beautiful. I hardly want to eat it it's so pretty!

The girls are going nuts with all these goodies around the house.  It's hard to be a kid and be patient at Christmas!

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Gingerbread house project 2013

This is our second year making a homemade gingerbread house during the Christmas season.  Last year, our first attempt went really well and it was so much fun I had to add it to our yearly traditions.  I get just as much, maybe even more, joy out of the whole process.  It's a mixture of crafting and baking and pretty much a perfect project for me.

I asked Addie for ideas for the house this year.  She's at an age to be really helpful and creative where as the other two girls just like the idea of tasting the candy.  The only trouble is that she decided she wanted to replicate our house in gingerbread.  Our home is three stories with two verandas and multiple balconies and I just wasn't feeling up to that challenge.

I found a sweet little ski chalet instead.  The template was simple enough and I added a chimney and front porch.  Three dimensional trees were added to the mix.

So here's how we did it:
Day 1-Make the gingerbread dough and refrigerate.  Find a flat piece of cardboard and cover with aluminum foil for our base.

Day 2-Copy and cut the template, roll out the gingerbread, cut into template pieces and bake

Day 3-Make frosting, assemble the main house pieces and decorate.
Here's where I cheated: we use a hot glue gun on the main house pieces so the structure is stable and ready to decorate quickly.  I know this is sacrilege for true gingerbread house builders.  I know our structure is not entirely edible, but I don't care.  Getting the frosting to set takes a long time and my kids weren't willing to wait any longer to get their hands on gum drops.  Truly, at this point in the project, I have no desire to wait overnight for those pieces to harden.

So the glue gun saves the day.  It allows us to assemble the house quickly and it holds well for weeks later.  Everything else is held together with frosting.

Some new things we tried this year: sugar bricks on the sides of the house.  The girls loved this part.

I had visions of candy cane pillars long before we started the project so I had to add that to the plan this year.

I also did all the piping prior to assembly. There are definitely some parts that have to be re-decorated after you touch them and fumble with getting the roof on but overall, this is a decent method.  With all the frosting and piping practice I've had over the past year, I felt like this was easier for me and the end result looked less wobbly and prettier.

We sort of wing the decorations for the garden.  We had gumdrops and traditional licorice candy that worked well for packages under the trees.  Addie frosted the trees and then Bella and Ashlynn helped put the silver ball ornaments on.  They also loved creating the gumdrop fence.  It's an easy task for them to help with.  One gumdrop in the mouth, one on the house!

Overall, we are super happy with the end results.  It was a fun family activity for us all.  It's also such a lovely centerpiece for our table for weeks afterwards.  The girls understand that we don't eat the gingerbread house but there are plenty of fingerprints where they've sneaked bits of the frosting!  It's hard to blame them, it looks so delicious.