The Christmas Calmdown - Sugar and Spice and All Things Nice!

Hi Everyone, and welcome back to The Christmas Calmdown, where we're planning ahead for a calm December!  The Christmas Calmdown is co-hosted by myself and my lovely and talented cousin Ainsley of Pattycake Manners.

If you've been keeping track, you may be surprised that I'm writing this month's post; you're right, it is Ainsley's turn.  However, she is up to her eyeballs in exciting life changes and so I am taking over again this month (don't worry, she'll be back!)  And no, I'm not going to tell you what she's up'll have to mosey on over to Pattycake Manners and check that out for yourself (some of it has me VERY excited...stay tuned!)

You may have also noticed that the Calmdown is a little late this month.  We decided that since Easter fell on the 25th that we would hold off and post the Calmdown a little later.  So that's why we're late!

And now one to the Calmdown!

This month we're thinking about Christmas baking and cooking; those wonderful treats that we look forward to all year long.  Whether bakery bought and made from scratch at home (and everything in between!), food is definitely a major part of the holiday season. And yet, every cook I speak to after the holidays has some special goody that they "didn't get around to making." Sometimes December gets away from us; that's the whole point of the Christmas Calmdown, after all!  And cooking is something that, despite all the advance planning you can do, you still have to make time to actually accomplish. With planning, however, it can be easier to bring the visions of sugarplums dancing out of our heads and across our palates!

Here's what we're going to do.  First, If you have a Christmas planner or household management book, grab it and turn to your holiday food section.  We are going to do four things:

1. Identify problem areas or challenges
2. Make a manageable holiday baking / cooking plan
3. Start a shopping list
4. Plan when to cook

Your first step is to think back on your culinary plan from holiday 2010 and determine what worked and what didn't.  Once you've established this, take a look at what didn't work and make a list. My list would look like this:
  • Ran out of time
  • Miscalculated supplies and ran out of some items
  • Had to cut items due to cost
Not a bad list, when all is said and done. It could have been worse...much worse. (Someday I'll tell you about a certain Christmas dinner that almost did me in.  But not today.)  Items two and three effect me more so because of my geographic location; baking supplies are bulky and heavy and therefore cost more in Northern BC, so some of my planned goodies just weren't worth making for two people when I added up the costs.  I could have made them, but it didn't add up to good home economics. And problem number one came from having too many REALLY GREAT IDEAS!

Now, look for solutions to the issues.  Mine are fairly simple and will be addressed with steps two and three. Even if you had a major issue that probably won't happen again (like food poisoning or oven failure) , it never hurts to look at what went wrong so next time you can anticipate and avoid. Case in point; several years ago, one cook I know popped her fabulous fruitcake in the oven one evening, only to discover after a bit of baking that an element had gone.  He husband got an element from somewhere and the crisis was averted, but if he hadn't been able to,  the evening's baking would have turned into a very expensive and heartbreaking disappointment.  The lesson learned would be not to start baking something that requires several hours in the oven at night after the hardware stores are closed.

Your second step is to make a manageable plan of what you want to cook.  Unless you are a kitchen whiz  I would suggest focusing on no more than five items.  Two or three traditional-to-you "must haves," something new, and a "challenge."

The "must haves" are anything you "must have" to make your holiday complete.  In my house, they are pork pies and short bread.  Remember, these are what make YOU happy; if Robin Hood cookie mix or frozen holiday Pillsbury cookies are what make YOU happy, then that's great.  You'll be enjoying cookies and Bailey's in front of the fire a lot sooner than all your "from scratch" friends!  If you do make your cookies from scratch and they can be made ahead and frozen, consider that.  The shells for my pork pies can be made well in advance and then filled just before.

The "something new" is just that; a new-to-you recipe that you're dying to try.  I often find myself dazzled by those "Hundreds of Holiday Cookies" magazines you see at the supermarket checkout.  I sometimes pick them up, if only for the pretty pictures, and pick one extra special cookie to try out.  Cookie swaps are a great place to pick up recipe cards of tried, true, and new treats.  Pick one new recipe to try this year and who knows?  Maybe next year it will move up to the "must haves!"

Finally, the "challenge."  I struggled with what to call this one; it could also go by "The big one," "The Show Stopper," or "The Piece de Resistance."  Whatever you call it, this is the major culinary project of your holiday season.  Consider making chocolates, a gingerbread house, a fruitcake (yes, some of us actually do like it!), steamed pudding, pizzelles, cannoli, spritz, a luxury seafood chowder (like my Dad's, which comes to the table brimming with mussels, lobster claws, and other delights), and, for some of you, your first turkey.   Whatever you choose, embrace the grandness / newness of the experience; turkey and steamed pudding are not a big deal for me to make, but I've never made spritz or pizzelle, which require special equipment, making them ideal choices for my "big challenge" this year.

Now that you've tackled last year's challenges and made a menu / plan, it's time for step three; your shopping list.  This is something you can work on for the remainder of the year.  Sit down with your recipes (put Bing on the stereo if it helps!) and list the ingredients you'll need.  Then figure out your yields.  This is important; when you start doubling and tripling recipes you will use a lot more flour, margarine, sugar, etcetra than you would making a normal batch of cookies.  In addition to ingredients, consider baking dishes, parchment paper, food wraps and the like. And don't forget decor!  Many a holiday baking budget has been blown by a trip to the cake decorating aisle...everything seems like a good idea at Christmas!

You can add to your list throughout the year as you think of things (Dragees!  Sweetened, Unsweetened AND superfine coconut!  Condensed and evaporated milk!  Bakers Boxes!  Baking Twine!  Candied Peel! SO MUCH ICING SUGAR!!!!) You see?  There's a lot to buy, and many items can be purchased in advance.  If you're going to need new cookie sheets, well, buy them in August.  Many decorator items have a long shelf life, and tin foil, parchment, waxed paper and plastic wrap don't expire.  If you get really lucky you might even hit a summer clearance sale and pick up some real treasures, like cute muffin cups or baker's boxes.  If you have an iPod Touch, iPhone or other smart phone with a list making app, consider inputting your list so you always have it with you.  You'll save yourself a rather pricey trip to the grocery store by buying even some of your supplies ahead of time.

The final step, (and this will be a work in progress) is to plan when to make all these goodies.  This can be hard to do in advance because you don't know what holiday events will be taking place.  Still, I do find, as Ainsley mentioned in one of our first posts, that sometimes the only way to get something done is to schedule for it, even if it's making a gingerbread house.  I suggest making an event out of your holiday baking; buy a nice bottle of wine or some mulled apple cider, put on some holiday tunes or even a Christmas movie, and get your spouse, kids, or friends involved.  You won't feel like you're missing out by staying home and baking.

Good luck with your planning!  Remember, take what you want from these posts; we include a lot of suggestions but ultimately, be flexible and do what's right for you.  If cooking's not your thing, or if December sends you a curve ball and your plans get derailed, get thee to a bakery and grocery store and let them do the cooking for you.  The whole point of the Christmas Calmdown is to avoid post-holiday feelings of guilt and disappointment; if this exercise determines that for you, homemade cookies and chowder just aren't worth all the money and fuss, then it was a success!  Here are some of my favorite entertaining "go-to's" for when time is more precious than bragging rights;
  • Frozen Lasagna - Many brands are just as good, and a better value, than home made.  In Canada, check out President's Choice's selection; they're great!  If any of my international buddies have a suggestion, add it to the comments.
  • Pillsbury - Yes, yes, hand-made fresh from the oven brioche are all well and good, but really, what we're ultimately craving is warm squishy bread.  I have never seen anyone look sad while eating a Pillsbury Grand.  It's also a favorite with the Pattycake Manner's crew at Christmas!
  • Store bought pie - Some brands are better than others; again, President's Choice makes some good ones.  And my mother taught me long ago that when it comes to pumpkin pie, just go with a good store bought; they usually taste better than homemade (sorry!).
  • Frozen tart shells - Fill 'em up with sweet or savory fillings and just listen to your guests go "Ooooo."  I served a selection of cranberry and lemon tarts for dessert this Christmas;  people loved them because they got to try both kinds without eating two pieces of pie (because for some reason that's wrong?)
  • Frozen appies - Don't you love that we call them "appies" now?  I hate trying to spell HORS D'OEUVRES.  I always mix up the R and the V.  Anyway, Christmas just wouldn't be Christmas without an Oriental Party Pack from M&M Meats; I have very fond memories of this pack 'o goodness being whipped out late Christmas Eve at my aunt and uncle's house.  And that's the whole point; frozen appies keep the party going without keeping the host hostage in the kitchen.  Don't forget the frozen shrimp rings with cocktail sauce!
As always, please add your suggestions in the comments.  We'd love to hear what you're thinking about the Christmas Calmdown!  See you next month!

Update + An Old Favourite!

Hello, Lovely People!

Just popping in to say "hello" and let you all know that we are settled into our new house!  I still have lots and lots of boxes to unpack, but we're home and it feels like home!

Suffice to say I probably won't be posting much this week, but I did want to leave you something more to read than a "hello."  Throughout the move, it was noted several times (by the good, good friends who helped us) that we have some very unusual, old, heavy furniture.  In particular, my antique oak dining table got a lot of comments.  It reminded me of one of my first posts, one that most of you haven't read.  It was actually posted under my original blog name, Simply Bee.  This post has a little bit of everything going on; crafts, wine, Sex and the City, and an epic disaster.  It's also actually quite funny, if I do say so myself.  Without further ado, I give you Mental Note!