This week is about creating a holiday atmosphere that stimulates all of our senses. For me, this is one of my favorite parts of the holidays.
First let's think about Fall and Thanksgiving. For me, this is all about the scents of pumpkin and cinnamon. During this time of year, my taste buds crave pumpkin muffins and apple cider. I love autumn images of pumpkin patches and sunflowers (I'm a bit of a sunflower freak!). While I'm looking forward to the the Christmas Holidays, I want to ensure that I also appreciate the season of Fall and not let it pass by two quickly in a rush for Christmas!
The scents of Christmas are big for me. When I was growing up, my mom was always burning candles. On Christmas morning we had freshly baked muffins (otherwise my mom wasn't much of a baker - sorry mom, but true!). During the holidays I love to burn candles. They create a warm glow that's visual appealing but also fill the house with incredible smells. The first few years that my husband I were married, we had a real tree so our house smelled like pine. Now that we have an artificial tree, I burn a candle from Gold Canyon Candle, Co. (Love Them!), called Holiday Wreath. It fills the house with that incredible scent of a real Christmas Tree (and no need to vacuum up pine needles!).
My first "taste" of the holidays comes with a Starbucks Peppermint White Mocha on Thanksgiving weekend. I recently learned that Starbucks has peppermint syrup all year round, but I refuse to drink it any time other than December and January. I think that keeps it as a special treat! When I think of the other tastes of the holidays, I think of my mom's Banana Chocolate Chip Muffins (maybe I'll post that recipe for you?), my mom's Simple Squares which are a decadent mixture of graham cracker crumbs, chocolate chips, coconut and sweetened condensed milk. I have never made these, although I have the recipe. I always bake treats that are safe for my daughter and I don't have a safe sub for sweetened condensed milk (she's allergic to dairy and soy). But, I've been mean to try coconut milk with her, so I can make Simple Squares.
Of course the holidays are not complete (for me) without the turkey dinner with all the fixin's . The stuffing has to be homemade or Stove Top. That's how it was when I was a kid. Now that I'm in the kitchen, I add fresh diced apple, celery and onion as well as dried cranberries to the Stove Top Stuffing. When we have holiday meals in our home, my father-in-law cooks the turkey (because I don't know how ~blushing~), I make the gravy (Our first holiday together, my father-in-law brought over canned gravy! Canned Gravy! Please, Please, Please people, gravy is soooo easy to make ~I'll post a recipe~, treat yourself and your guests and make gravy on the stovetop while you're waiting for the juices of your Turkey to set before carving. DO NOT open a can of gravy. OK?). Mashed potatoes and steamed veggies, cranberry sauce (I love Harry & David Cranberry Relish), and warmed rolls complete the meal. Growing up, dessert was always pumpkin pie or lemon meringue pie. This is a tradition that I continue in our home at the holidays, too.
I have to add that a critical part of my menu planning and holiday baking includes recipes from Kids With Food Allergies (KFA). If you've followed me for very long, you know how much I love KFA. I don't think I could stay sane during the holidays without the recipes and support of the people at KFA. Food is such an integral part of holiday celebrations and it's essential for me to be able to provide safe, yummy food for my daughter at this time of year and all year round. There are over 1,000 recipes in the database at KFA. Many of these recipes are free of the top 8 most common allergens. Some of the recipes are free to anyone, but ALL are free with a small membership fee of $25/yr. The membership fee gives you unlimited access to all that KFA has to offer for one year (discussion forums on anything and everything you can imagine related to food allergies, printable articles and resources backed by a medical advisory board and current news and research, to list a few). During the holidays, I spend a lot of time talking online with the people who actually created the recipes in the database, so if I need to sub an ingredient or need some extra hand holding as I buy ingredients, and make the recipe, the folks at KFA always come through for me. These people literally taught me how to bake. Need recommendations on bakeware? Want to find out if that Kitchen Aid Stand mixer you've been eyeing is really worth the money (trust me it is!), looking for food-free ways to celebrate the holidays? Ask the parents at KFA and you'll get all the answers.
I love the sights and sounds of the holidays, too. In the evenings I love to dim the overhead lighting and turn on the Christmas Tree lights (love all white lights) and lamps. As I mentioned I light candles for an added glow. As a kid we had a wood burning stove in our basement and I really miss that. It rarely gets cold enough in the Southern California Desert to warrant lighting a fire, and we don't have a fireplace in our current house. We've always had a fireplace in all the other houses we've lived in, but they were gas. I still love the warm glow of a fire during the holidays.
I love Christmas Trees covered in white lights and simple glittery decorations. When I was growing up, we had a staircase in our house and I was in charge of decorating the banister with the evergreen garland, cranberries and big velvet bows. I also love tables set up with holiday houses and other vignettes. When I was a young teenager, I babysat for a family that had a miniature ceramic village in their living room during the holidays. I always loved that village, and a couple of years ago my mom bought me my own ceramic village. (Hit the after Christmas sales and get GREAT deals on these!). I also love the simple touches of the holidays like peppermint candies, pine cones, and fresh cranberries in glass vases.
When I remember our Christmas music, I first think of Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers. I absolutely LOVE this album. I'm not huge into Country and I don't remember listening to much Country music growing up, but who doesn't like Dolly and Kenny? This album was always on in our house during the holidays and my mom bought me my own copy the first Christmas I was married. I also remember listening to Alvin and The Chipmunks Christmas Album on my record player as a kid and a Cabbage Patch Kids Christmas Album. I wish I still had a record player and record albums. I need to look through my daughter's CD collection and see what holiday albums she has or needs. Any recommendations?
I love the warm textures of the holidays, too. I have cozy red blankets that I only bring out during the holidays, fuzzy socks, warm scarves, flannel jammies, velvety table runners, holiday kitchen towels and hand towels in the bathroom, these are other simple ways to add to the special atmosphere that is created only once a year!