Thursday 25 December 2014

All Things Christmas [Part Three – Various Traditions]

In addition to the Festival of Lights, I have a few annual Christmas traditions which add a lot of love and fun to the holidays. Isn't that really what the season is all about? Spending time and making memories with those we love? 

Shopping with Nanny: Up until I was 7 years old, my dad would take Adam and I shopping for our mom. Each shopping trip followed the same pattern – go to the mall, hit the main box store (Sears, Zellers or The Bay), go to housewares, pick up a pot or something kitchen related, buy it, then head to an electronic store to look at the remote control products. I was against this for a number of reasons – First, mom didn’t even like to cook. Secondly, I hated remote controlled anything. And third, I wanted to look around and find the perfect gift. I don’t know exactly how it happened but I eventually complained to Nanny about the injustice of it all and from then on she would take me shopping. I treasured these Nanny-Chantal trips as we would spend hours at the mall going from store to store. She never rushed me and put up with my obsessive need to keep looking (usually only to go back and buy the first thing I saw) and we would usually stop and have lunch or pie at Gallentry’s (man, I miss that place!). Once I was older I tended to shop more on my own, but every Christmas there is at least one day that we go shopping together. Usually Mom and/or Aunt Honey join us, but the fact remains its still our tradition and has always been “our” thing! (Eventually Dad and Adam stopped with the kitchen-related gifts and began actually picking out things mom would actually want/enjoy!)

Christmas Shopping with my Brother: While on the topic of shopping traditions this is another one I have. Adam and I are very different. That’s not to say we don’t get along but we don’t really have many similar hobbies or interests. A few years back we started spending one day together at Christmas and shopping for our parents. A few times these shopping trips resulted in brother-sister arguments over what to get them (the worst one being when we both refused to budge and my dad ended up with a monkey table and a wine holder) and more often then not they ended with older sister picking up the tab amid promises of “I’ll pay you back later!” Regardless of all that, they are moments that will always have a special place in my heart because it was just us.    

This was what Adam ended up getting Dad the year we had a huge argument over gifts. I personally hated this thing and still do, but Dad loves him.  

Cookie Baking with Amanda: For about the last 6-7 years Amanda and I have gotten together to spend a day baking. She makes her usual short bread cut outs and I usually make something else – this year it was my Nutella cookies. We spend the day hanging out in yoga pants, drinking wine, eating some incredibly bad for you-yet-delicious take out and being silly. A few years back she gave me these ABC gingerbread men cutters (Already Been Chewed) and someone else bought me a set of Ninja Gingerbread Men ones. Most years our cookies end up being a strange mix of traditional and silly. This year Amanda confessed that she absolutely hates baking these cookies, and only does because it’s our tradition. That’s definitely a sign of a true best friend! 

Distillery District Christmas Market: For the last few years Brian and I have been going downtown for this. It’s Toronto’s version of the European Christmas Markets with little booths set up selling handmade products/edibles and various food/drink vendors. We’ve always gone on the weekends and it’s been packed with swarms of people – couples, friends, families – it’s become a huge tourist attraction. This year was by far the worst. I don’t know if its because we went closer to Christmas or because it was a Saturday night – but either way it was chaos. The booths are all full of interesting and unique items but the prices are often insane so we don’t tend to spend a lot of time looking at them anymore. Usually we only visit the beer gardens to have a quick drink or sample something (the Cider and Mulled Wine being my favorites) and go elsewhere for food but this time we decided to eat there. That was an adventure in itself! We each had a traditional sausage and shared some fancy poutine – both of which were good albeit over priced. Then Brian spied these huge Turkey legs and wanted one as well. We waited in the 30 minute line up only to realize it was the only booth that didn’t take debit. Brian ran off to find an ATM and I remained in line letting people go ahead of me. I think there were about 5-7 people who didn’t realize I was in line and letting people go ahead of me, and these people started throwing fits that I was “budding in” – That was fun. Meanwhile Brian went to the 4 ATMs on-site only to find them ALL out of money and he ended up having to leave the site and find a bank. He had been gone about 50 minutes and was just heading back when the booth announced they were down to their last 10 turkey legs. At this point I pulled out an American $20 and used that to secure one of the 10. This sucked for me as it was taken on par, at a time when the US dollar was much higher then ours. But Brian got his turkey leg – which unfortunately looked a lot better then it tasted! We didn’t stay much longer after that. The crowds were making it impossible to move and it just wasn’t as fun as it had been. Next year we will go back but we will make sure to go earlier when they first open – and we will probably go back to eating elsewhere. Still its a fun tradition that we have. 

The beautiful Christmas Tree! 
The end result of the Turkey Leg Drama 
One of the cute booths - this reminded me of the market in Budapest where I bought a bunch of handmade products as souvenirs. 

A collage from last year's market! 
Christmas Light Drives: I love driving around the area and checking out all the amazing Christmas light displays. It’s a fun way to spend the evening – sipping a candy cane hot chocolate and seeing all the bright lights. The brighter and crazier the better is my motto. Brian is much more into the traditional décor – white lights, classic and simple – but I love seeing the various colors and the whimsical decorations and absolutely love the over-the-top houses. I've already told him that when we have a house of our own I'll have dad send him out of town for "work" around Christmas and when he returns our house will look something like these! This year I found the show "The Great Christmas Light Fight" which quickly became my new favourite holiday TV Show! 

On the topic of Holiday drinks - I did find a new favourite at my beloved Starbucks - a Chai-Nog Latte. Basically it's a chai tea latte made with egg nog instead of milk. WOW! It's pretty much the most amazing drink I have ever tasted and made some of my holiday traditions extra special.  

Gingerbread House Decorating: This was a new tradition Brian and I started this year. I had actually never decorated a Gingerbread House and wanted to give it a try. We wanted to actually bake our own houses but no matter how hard I searched I couldn’t find the cookie cuter set that would make that possible, so we settled on a kit from the store. We each got a house and spent an afternoon gathering up supplies from the Bulk Candy store. I managed to find one of the rare stores in the area that carried Necco wafers as according to Brian they are a crucial element to Gingerbread roofing. Looking back, I took this way too seriously. I think because it was my first time doing it I was both overwhelmed and hit with the desire to make the perfect house. I am a little ashamed to admit this but I re-roofed my house 4 times! Once I managed to let it go a bit, I had a lot more fun. Brian’s house was a bit more traditional – he did the Necco roof and made it very simple with a bit of candy mixed in. Mine however was a bit over the top and became a house worthy of being a palace in the Candyland Realm!

I learned a lot from this attempt and will definitely give it a try next Christmas. One main thing I will keep in mind is that sometimes less is more!   

My Candy Palace! 
Brian's traditional house!
Watching Sappy Christmas Movies: Sappy Christmas Movies are my guilty pleasure. I spend all of Nov/Dec searching the TV guide and taping movie after movie. Often Dad and I watch them together – or at the very least discuss which ones we have seen. While there are ones that air year after year, there always seems an abundance of news ones to choose from. The Hallmark Channel isn’t something we get here, so usually we are a year behind in terms of those Holiday movies. But the W network and Showcase always have a great selection. Of all the movies I saw for the first time this season, the following were my favourites:
The Christmas Shepherd, Window Wonderland, Christmas Hope, Christmas at Cartwrights and The Christmas Ornament. Of course I also have a list of ones I watch year after year like The Sound of Music and Love Actually.

Pottery Painting: A few years ago I took Paige to a local paint-your-own-pottery studio so that she could make some Christmas gifts for her parents. Now it’s become a tradition that we do annually. This year we tried a new place that is closer to where I live – The Clay Emporium. I am so glad I found this place! While I liked where we used to go, I much prefer this place. Not only is it closer, but it is much larger and better laid out. The tables/chairs are more comfortable and the selection of pieces and colours is much better. Over the past few years we are joined by other family/friends - this year it was Paige, Amanda, Nanny and myself. I am not really the most artistic person but I love pottery painting! It is such a fun activity and an opportunity to be a little bit creative. This year Paige painted a beautiful mug for her dad and a purse bank for her mom. I did a mug (it didn’t turn out how I planned) and a trinket box for Paige. Nanny made a vase and Amanda did a mug and Christmas ornament.

Overall it was another wonderful Christmas season filled with some amazing and fun times. I really am blessed to have such great family and friends to share the holidays with.

Me and my Godmother!

The Scottish song that we sing every Christmas Eve - "You Canny Shove Your Granny Off a Bus"
Christmas Themed Girls Night 

Pappy and his Granddaughters!

Monday 22 December 2014

All Things Christmas [Part Two – Baking and Crafts]


I love baking and each season provides me a great excuse to try out some new recipes. Pinterest is the number one cause of this as I spend most of the year pining some yummy looking treats I can’t wait to try. Last season’s hit was my Browned Butter Nutella Stuffed Salted Chocolate Chip Cookies… which I of course made again.


This year’s popular cookie were my adorable Snowman Cookies from Taste of Home

These cookies not only looked awesome but they were delicious and held up despite their delicate construction. Usually when I try out a new recipe I give myself a few attempts to master it, but this one turned out perfectly the first time. I was a little worried at first about forming the balls and ensuring they stuck together during baking, but I found as long as I pushed them together firmly it worked out well. 


1. The mini-chcolate chips for the eyes have to be pushed on as soon as they are out of the oven to ensure they stick, but if you hesitate at all the chocolate starts to melt a little (ex - Snowman #3). 

2. Instead of the mini-kisses I used regular ones which worked out okay. But next time I would be more careful with the icing when applying their hats (Ex - Snowman #5). 

3. I found that rolling out a bunch of each sized balls first and then assembling them later helped. When I tried to roll in order it took more time and the snowman were all different sizes. 

Step 1 - Forming the Snowman -- push the balls together firmly

Step Two - One baked add their eyes and buttons

Step Three - Decorate when cooled and enjoy!
I made a batch of my favorite Ginger Molasses cookies (a recipe I got from a café I used to work at) and as usual they were good, but not as good as the originals! I also tried out some new recipes like cherry almond shortbread and eggnog cookies. Both recipes were okay, but I plan to improve on them next year. 

I was going to organize a cookie swap this year but started the planning too late. It's definitely on the list for next year though, as I really miss our annual cookie exchange party. I did help out a friend who signed up for a swap not fully understanding the concept and made 160 cookies for her. Brian and my mom thought I was insane but I truly did enjoy it. I love baking and don't find it a chore but a pleasure. 

Usually I take some Holiday cupcake/cake decorating classes at Christmas and spend some time making various cakes and such, but this year I didn't. I only made one batch of cupcakes and kept them simple - I used a plain chocolate frosting and cut out mini fondant ginger bread men which I decorated using edible markers. In the spirit of being honest I will fully admit the cake was from a mix and the frosting from a can. Still, while they were simple and easy they looked great and tasted awesome. I am big on adding liquor and flavours to my cupcakes so in future I would try out this same look but add some gingerbread liqueur to the batter and icing for a more festive feel.  

After I finished all my holiday baking I assembled some cookie boxes which I gave out to various family, friends and co-workers. I find these boxes are great to have on hand for when guests drop by or when you are going to someones house. Because I start my baking early, I make sure that all my recipes freeze well. I carefully seal them in freezer bags which I place inside plastic containers. 

I get all my boxes from either Creative Bag or the dollar store and line them with foil wrap. Then once the baking is finished I assemble the boxes. I leave this until the last week of Christmas so that I can start giving them out immediately. I work quickly at assembling the boxes so that I can refreeze them if needed. If I am refreezing them I wrap them in plastic wrap and foil to keep them from going airy.  

This year I made up a few different sized boxes 

Pecan-Pretzel-Rolo Cookie 

One of the most simple cookies I include in the boxes is a Pretzel topped with a rolo chocolate. This gets baked for about 5 minutes at 350 (you have to watch them) until the chocolate starts to melt. Once they come out of the oven you press a pecan on top forcing the chocolate to cover the insides of the pretzel. Next year I plan to get a little more fancy with the pecans and roast/flavor them beforehand.


I tried out a Christmas craft from Pinterest this year, which turned out quite nicely. I encountered a bit of problems with the vase – the candy canes kept breaking – but when I added some pretty flowers and some bright ribbon, I was happy with the end result. It was a great centerpiece for the table.

My Candy Cane Vase 
Basically you take some sort of round can/vase. A coffee can was suggested but I had a leftover glass vase from my wedding. Then using candy canes you glue them around the sides creating what is supposed to look like this:

Pinterest's Vase - the inspiration 
After about 20 minutes of candy canes breaking and not lining up properly, any  expectations of this being the end result were gone! Still I kept at it making the best of what I had. I finally broke off all the curves of the canes because there was no way I had enough of them and then used a second piece of ribbon to cover any cracks. While it didn't turn out exactly as I had envisioned I think my vase was beautiful and worth the effort! Next year I may try this again but use a square shape instead and make sure I buy a lot more candy canes. 

I also made up some baskets for my fathers business clients. While he usually sends out around 20 baskets, I only did the two large ones as a trail run. They turned out great and we have plans for me to make all of them next Christmas. I used a large box as the base (I find baskets over-used and restrictive) and filled them with various chocolates, cookies, candies and other edible products. I bought the contents at Purdy's chocolates (the best Canadian chocolate store in my opinion!) a local Italian grocer as well as from the One of a Kind Show. I find that many gift baskets come off looking full but aren't really - its an illusion from all the filler inside. I did away with all of that and used only the actual contents inside. 

I have to say the One of a Kind Show was wroth the trip downtown. The different types of candies and cookies I was able to find for the baskets were awesome! They included products from all over Canada and helped make them very unique. 

One last thing I decided to try this Christmas was a holiday-themed manicure! I oped to do a simple candy cane design which turned out nicely. I loved the bit of whimsy/sparkle this added and it perfectly matched my Christmas phone case. (Yes, I actually have a Christmas phone-case which works great with my Christmas ring-tones!).

Monday 15 December 2014

All Things Christmas [Part One – Planning and Shopping]

Anyone who even remotely knows me will tell you that I am a bit Christmas-obsessed. It is my favourite holiday/time of the year and I go all out. I start my decorating as soon as Halloween is over (this is no joke, I actually start on November 1st) and will have my Christmas Cards done and mailed as soon as the American Thanksgiving is over. Most years I am finished shopping by the first week of December with packages having already been sent out and gifts wrapped. My Christmas crazy extends into many elements – planning, shopping, baking and various traditions.

The leaves may still be on the ground, but the Christmas decorations are being put up! 

I think that planning is one of the main reasons that I enjoy the holidays so much. With a clear plan I can ensure that everything gets done by a reasonable date and actually spend time having fun with family and friends. Before the Christmas season is upon us, I spend a little bit of time updating my lists of whom I am buying for and setting budgets. I use the mGifts app which has been a lifesaver! It lets me set up people and budgets and I can easily track what I get them (and what I have gotten them in previous years) and track the status of it using categories like need, purchased, wrapped, shipped, ideas and archives. While it doesn’t exactly keep me in budget each year it definitely helps ensure that I am keeping track of money spent and gifts bought.

I also make lists in terms of my Christmas cards. Ideally I try and start working on them at the start of November. While this may seem early, there were a few years where I had them all done and ready before the 1st of September. That was a bit much so I now wait until at least the end of Halloween. I spend a few evenings at the kitchen table listening to some Christmas songs while I write out my well wishes. I have also cut back dramatically on these going from sending out almost 200 cards to about 90. I keep track of who sent cards back/acknowledged them and keep that in mind for future years. My Christmas Card shopping has become a bit of an addiction on its own – every year before and after Christmas I stockpile boxes and boxes of Christmas Cards. I am a sucker for the cute designs and anything that sparkles! This year when my mom and Nanny needed cards, they didn’t bother buying them – they just picked from my selection!

Brian needs a Beer to help prepare for the Christmas Card Pile he has to sign.
This wasn't even all of them that year! 

I also start my baking early. I love Christmas baking but learned the hard way how little fun it can be when I am rushing to finish it within the last few weeks. Plus the prices shoot way up closer to Christmas. Now I start narrowing down my recipes, stockpiling supplies and bake 1-2 things each week. I freeze them and usually assemble treat boxes a few days before Christmas which are given out to family, friends and co-workers.

My Holiday Motto!


Ideally, I tend to Christmas shop all year round. When out and about I will keep my eyes open for gift ideas and pick up a few things here and there for people on my list. In previous years I have done a large chunk on Black Friday and used the Thanksgiving Holiday to ship out gifts to Brian’s American family members. I am very much a deal-oriented shopper and will pick up things at various outlet malls and sales I encounter. This is allowed me to find some amazing designer products at reasonable prices. I used to leave my Christmas shopping until the last minute but stopped doing that once I was working at retail at the local mall. The last thing I wanted to do before/after or on my day off was walk around the mall! I also found the closer Christmas was the more unhappy and rude fellow customers and employees were. 

So now, while I may run out to a store or two during the last two weeks of Christmas it’s always for a specific item with a specific plan in place. Brian on the other hand is completely the opposite and leaves all his shopping until the 22nd-24th of December. It must be a guy thing as my dad and brother do this as well.

Plus, getting my shopping done early means more Starbucks dates with this guy!