Happy December, everyone! We are in full holiday swing around here, although we have heavy hearts with the fires in Southern CA. And this time we’ve got family in the immediate area of the fires. We have great hope and prayer that the fires are extinguished- that the firefighters have continued strength as they fight exhausted hour after hour to get these fires contained.
On a positive note- I really love this season of preparing- not just in the kitchen, but the house, gifts, gatherings, our hearts, you name it. It’s the Christmas season and the excitement of our three kids truly makes it more fun as each year passes. Even as the skepticism about Santa and strange elves (warranted!) seems to be taking hold, the magic of Christmas is strong and it makes me smile ear to ear.
Much of what makes me smile each year are the traditions that our family has developed over the years. We all have them, right? My kids have come to expect certain activities in December, decorations around the house, and gatherings with family (because cousins are awesome!!) and friends (where brunch turns into dinner because you all don’t want to say goodbye). Nearly all of those traditions involve food- food to enjoy yourselves, food to share or serve to others.
Years into dating Eric, I wanted to continue a Christmas tradition that he remembered fondly from his childhood. There were two particular desserts- Tassies and Chocolate Mint Stripes- that I would hear about and I wanted to continue the tradition. There was one problem, those recipes were closely guarded and it wasn’t until I had a ring on my finger that I was given the recipes. Those recipes are dear to us and are a beautiful addition to the holiday recipes that I grew up with.
Exactly 10 years ago my mom made a family cookbook that contained a collection of recipes that we grew up with. They were the recipes that my siblings and I would call our mom for, quickly scribble down the recipe while we were at the store because the craving was so strong, only to lose the recipe and repeat the same story the next time we were craving a particular childhood favorite. This book was such a treasured gift to all of us. It included familiar recipes that we had growing up, ones that became favorites and some that we didn’t quite remember having but my mom swears were staples at family gatherings (why are nuts, mayo and green jello even allowed to be combined in a bowl anyhow?). The book also has family birthday dates, anniversaries, quotes, favorite scripture, and most importantly, some beautiful poetry that my mom wrote during some happy as well as trying times. The book is titled “A Mother’s Treasure of Family Favorite Recipes,” and that it sure is.
Here were are in December and the weeks, as expected, have gotten a little nutty. As much as we all have good intentions to minimize the “holiday craze” each year, try as we may, there is still a hectic busyness around town. A quick jaunt to the craft store to pick up something turns into a 35 minute line at the checkout counter. Each day feels like you don’t have enough hours in the day to get things done. (Why are kids allowed to have minimum school days in December?!)
As you know by now- I spend a ton of time in the kitchen. About the time I begin to complain about being too busy and I cannot seem to get things done, Eric will point out the batch of granola and double batch of muffins that I made mid-day. For this reason, I decided to take a week in December and skip cooking. For me that’s super hard- trying new recipes is very fun for me and this felt like a bit of a punishment. However, this past week I got so much done by staying out of the kitchen that I think this might become one of my new holiday traditions! Now that I was so productive with my to-do list, it’s back in the kitchen this week- and because my freezer is empty.
I’d love to share two holiday recipes that we look forward to each year and are part of our family tradition in December. Also, two soups that are healthy, easy and a perfect balance to all that sugar we tend to eat this time of year.
Eric grew up with this fun tradition of sculpting sweet bread into Christmas shapes and he was excited to establish this with our own family. We’ve been doing it since the kids were little but old enough to help with this project.
I gotta say, it has become one of our favorite family traditions. We’ve done everything from a wreath, elf, candy cane, and Santa, to an angel, reindeer, and Christmas owl?? We used to use Eric’s mom’s recipe for years until last year. We took a Day of the Dead cooking class and learned about a very similar sweet dough that is traditional in Mexican cuisine, but it had this wonderful orange zest studded throughout the dough and we decided to try that for our sculpture bread tradition. It was a huge hit! The key is to start the dough early- we usually start ours the morning of Christmas Eve and sculpt it just before we leave for our church service in the late afternoon. We let it rise while we are gone and bake it while we get ready for the reindeer- let it cool and wrap it up really well. We love to eat this bread with salted butter and apricot jam- perfect to enjoy while opening presents on Christmas morning.
Sugar Cookies- Christmas cut outs with frosting
This recipe comes from my family recipe book. I’ve made these cookies for as long as I can remember. Whenever we share these cookies with others- the recipe is always requested! I’m not totally sure what makes them so unique, but most sugar cookies are too floury, undercooked or just lack flavor. Not these- they are full of flavor, roll out perfectly and are delicious frosted or simply sprinkled with sugar crystals or sprinkles. My mom didn’t really have a recipe for the frosting because she made it up each year, but since I have given out the recipe so many times, I found one here that has worked for years.
3 ¾ cups flour
2 ½ tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
1 ½ cups sugar
⅔ cups butter, room temperature
2 TB milk
1 tsp vanilla (I like to do half vanilla and half almond extract)
In a large bowl, combine dry ingredients with combined wet ingredients and beat at medium speed until well mixed, occasionally scraping the bowl. Shape dough into two disks and wrap each in plastic wrap. Refrigerate for 2-3 hours until easy to handle. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Lightly grease cookie sheets or line with parchment paper. On floured surface, roll one of the disks till ⅛” to ¼” thick. With floured cookie cutters, cut into various shapes. Place them on cookie sheets, ½” apart. Bake for 8 minutes, or until very lightly browned.
When cooled, you can frost them and add candy decorations when frosting is still wet.
Broccoli- Cheese Soup
My kids love this kind of soup and will order it if they see it on a menu or in the hot food section at our local grocery store. The problem is- most are so full of cream and cheese that the nutritional value of the broccoli seems to get lost. Recently, I treated myself to a new cookbook called Cooking at Home with Bridget and Julia (two longtime America’s Test Kitchen chefs). I have tried two recipes from the book so far and both knocked my socks off. This particular one made my kids practically lick their soup bowls. They all loved it! This soup is a gorgeous bright green instead of the pale green/white that we are used to- thanks to a healthy dose of fresh spinach that gets added in just prior to blending. It has zero cream and much less cheese than most recipes. I used the full amount of the sharp cheddar and reduced the parmesan a bit and we didn’t miss a thing. We had garlic toast on the side as well as a kale salad (more green!). It was quick and easy to make after a busy day. I hope you enjoy this!
2 tablespoons of unsalted butter
2 pounds broccoli florets chopped into 1-inch pieces, stalks peeled and sliced ¼ inch thick
1 onion, chopped course
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 ½ teaspoons dry mustard
Pinch of cayenne pepper
Salt and pepper
3-4 cups water
¼ teaspoon baking soda
2 cups chicken broth
2 ounces (2 cups) baby spinach
3 ounces sharp cheddar cheese, shredded (¾ cup)- I used sharp white cheddar
1 ½ ounces Parmesan cheese, grated fine (¾ cup), plus extra for serving
- Melt butter in Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add broccoli, onion, garlic, mustard, cayenne, and 1 teaspoon salt and cook, stirring frequently, until fragrant, about 6 minutes. Add 1 cup water and baking soda. Bring to a simmer, cover, and cook until broccoli is very soft, about 20 minutes, stirring once during cooking.
- Add broth and 2 cups water and increase heat to medium-high. When mixture begins to simmer, stir in spinach and cook until wilted, about 1 minute. Transfer half of the soup to a blender, add both cheeses, and process until smooth. Transfer soup to a medium bowl and repeat with the remaining soup. Return soup to Dutch oven, place over medium heat and bring to a simmer. Adjust consistency with up to 1 cup of water. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve, sprinkling extra Parmesan on top.
Cook’s note: You could easily use an immersion blender to keep some of the texture as well as minimize extra steps and dishes. I used my Vitamix and blended the first batch until pretty smooth, and left a bit of texture with the second half of the soup. I also didn’t need the extra cup of water to thin as the consistency was perfect for us. Enjoy!
— “Cooking at Home With Bridget & Julia” by America’s Test Kitchen (America’s Test Kitchen; October 2017
This is another healthy, satisfying soup that gives you plenty of leftovers for a busy week. We love the garlic toasts or grilled cheese on the side. I make this as directed- yum!
Have a great week!