A Touch of Magic for the Holidays

You know how every now and then, a moment in your day… a day in a month… a month in your year… is somehow lit with a magical glow? It can happen unexpectedly in the middle of the mundane — a casual glance out the window while mopping the kitchen floor that takes your breath away with a golden-crowned rainbow, or a spontaneous drive on a damp day that turns into a lifelong memory of a romp in a fairytale playground.

This holiday season was like that. Somehow, everything aligned just perfectly to make a magical, memorable holiday. Aaron’s job has been a bit less demanding for the last couple of months, and he’s had to travel much less. My migraines have been much more under control and less intense than before, and the medication I’ve been using has generally been effective in stopping them — I’ve had maybe five or fewer days in the past month that I had to actually go to bed to vanquish one, and only one or two that affected me for an entire day. Sofia has reached an age where she makes a perfect playmate, able to imitate and adore her brother, and she and Niko have been playing together just delightfully — of course they have tiffs and occasional tantrums, but for the most part, watching them together has brought warmth to my heart.

I feel like we jam-packed this season with memories. The kids saw Santa twice. The first time was at our little town’s local tree-lighting, just over a week after we put up and decorated our own Christmas tree. There were cookies, candy canes, hot chocolate, and photo ops with Santa; someone had brought barrels for warm fires; kids ran around tossing glow sticks, which Niko first took for flying angels; and then, after just about the perfect wait time, the gigantic pine tree lit with multicolored lights from top to bottom. The second time was at Niko’s holiday concert (during which he actually stood in his place with his classmates, and sang the appropriate songs at the appropriate times, with minimal support from his teachers).

Memory-making moments can be tricky to orchestrate, but this year we made one after another in joyful succession. The tree-lighting and Santa encounters were certainly stand-out moments, though I didn’t have a whole lot to do with creating them. But that wasn’t all. We made Niko’s very first gingerbread house, and I managed to arrange it with minimal fuss — I made the dough during lunch one day and let it chill during nap time, then let Niko cut out the gingerbread shapes — I have a set of very convenient house-building cutters —  when he woke up, plus a few people and snowflake shapes. Sofia woke up just in time to cut out a few at the tail end of the session. We baked them off during supper, then the next day I mixed up a quick royal icing during nap and let Niko put the house together and decorate it, with Sofia once more pitching in at the end. Then they decorated their gingerbread people with liberal adornments of candy, Niko’s in a somewhat humanoid fashion, Sofia’s with no limits whatsoever. We admired the finished house for a few days, then ripped into it the day after Christmas.

It was a quiet holiday season, but we did get a visit — two visits, in fact — from family. My aunt, who was visiting family in California, came up for a lovely two days, during which she thoroughly charmed the kids and did as much work around the house as I did myself. And we got a surprise visit from Aaron’s aunt a few days ago, a quick stop during a long layover that turned into a pleasant overnight visit when her standby connecting flight fell through. The holidays don’t feel quite right without some sort of family gathering, so having two visits made the season just that much more special.

Santa, tree lighting, gingerbread houses, decorating the Christmas tree the day after Thanksgiving… treasured memories, to be sure, but I’m pretty sure the weather was responsible for the most exciting moment of the season. On the morning of Christmas Eve, the kids awoke to a magical snowfall. Last winter, our first winter here in our new home, there had been no snow at all; the year before, living in a rental home about twenty miles from here, we’d had snow in February, but none at Christmas. So the sight of that glorious skim of snow covering the lawn brought enormous excitement. We ran through the snow, the kids dug in it with shovels — well, they scraped at it with shovels, as there really wasn’t enough to dig — and we even built a mini snowman together. Then, of course, we went back inside for hot chocolate to warm up, just in time for Sofia to lie down for a morning nap.

Christmas Eve just kept getting better. The snow melted in time to make a drive to a Christmas Eve service at church stress-free, and Niko loved singing songs with us rather than going to Sunday school. Then, back home for barbecue chicken wings that had been simmering all afternoon in the crock pot, and finally the crowning moment — opening a special Christmas Eve box for each child, packed with winter pajamas, a tiny toy, and a baggie each of popcorn and hot chocolate mix. I made popcorn and hot chocolate while the kids put on their new jammies, and then we watched our traditional mini-series episodes of Prep and Landing, a Pixar story about the elves responsible for getting houses ready for Santa’s arrival.

Christmas Day was calm and surprisingly peaceful, for a day that’s often hectic. We’d been cooking for days ahead, which made our labor for Christmas dinner on the day itself minimal. Aaron made beef Wellington, and the sauce he made took a total of three days’ of work, from making broth, to reducing the stock, to finally making a rich concoction that simply isn’t adequately described by the word gravy. I’d made a pecan tart two days before that far surpassed my expectations, the caramel flavor of the filling and the toastiness of the pecans merging to make a dessert I actually liked (I’m not a fan of pecan pie — as a Canadian, I resent the crunchy nuts that interrupt the smoothness of a butter tart-like treat). We started the morning with a semi-traditional Tannenbaum coffee cake, and while it baked, the kids opened their Christmas stockings. After breakfast, we dug into our gifts, enjoying the kids’ delight at their pair of stick horses and other treats. And then we simply enjoyed the day together, Aaron and I working together to finish dinner preparations, watching Christmas specials, reading stories, and going for a traditional Christmas Day walk. Our day was warm, loving, and joyful in a way even a pesky (and short-lived, to my relief) migraine couldn’t spoil.

I just can’t get over how…perfect…this season was. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, so to speak — for a catastrophe, an illness, a personal struggle, or whatever, to mar the succession of joyful, peaceful days. But, other than a few unpleasant migraines (including the one on Christmas Day and one on New Year’s Day), it’s just been a peaceful, joy-filled holiday season. We’ve had struggles this year, with changes to my mental and physical health making their impact on maintaining our two-acre home and on our family dynamic, but for the past couple of months it’s felt as though things are smoothing out. We’ve been able to enjoy baking, playing, decorating, shopping, and being a family. I’m grateful for this holiday season and for my patient and supportive husband, and I’m excited for the new year and all the ventures we’ve planned.

Tannenbaum Christmas Coffee Cake

At some point in my late teens, I came across a recipe for Christmas tree-shaped coffee cake. My family didn’t celebrate Christmas, but I fell in love with the recipe and made it anyway. It turned out to be a hit, and I’ve made it nearly every year since. 

I can’t remember now where I found the original version of this recipe.  It’s scrawled in my embarrassingly cute recipe journal, which is pink and enlivened with a photo of kittens on the cover, and I recorded it before I began my habit of referencing the sources of my recipes.

I’ve altered it somewhat from the original over the years. I use the original recipe for the dough, but since the recipe made two huge tree-shaped coffee cakes, I now cut it in half to be more reasonable for a small family rather than a large gathering — in fact, this year I’ll use this half-sized recipe to make two small ones  instead of a single large cake, and freeze one for New Year’s morning. Besides adjusting the amount of dough, I tweaked the original filling, adding spices and dried fruit and increasing the overall amount. So, while I do wish I could give credit to the original creator, the evolution over the years is enough to erase any compunction I might feel for failing to cite my sources.

This sweet treat is more like an elaborate, decorative cinnamon roll than the coffee cake I grew up with, which was a cross between a quick bread (like banana bread) and a cake, with a cinnamon streusel topping. Instead of baking soda, this coffee cake uses yeast, and it needs to be made the afternoon before you’re planning your breakfast to give it plenty of time to rise overnight. 

You may scroll all the way to the bottom to read a more concise version of this recipe, and print a PDF.

Start by collecting your ingredients:

Dough:

  • 3/4 cup milk
  • 1/4 cup butter
  • 1 egg
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon yeast
  • 2 1/2 – 3 cups flour
  • Oil or cooking spray

Filling:

  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 tablespoon cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1/4 cup melted butter
  • 1/4 cup chopped nuts
  • 1 cup dried fruit, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon melted butter (for brushing onto the dough)

Glaze:

  • 1 cup confectioner’s sugar
  • Water or milk
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
  • Maraschino cherries, for garnish

Royal Icing (optional)

  • White of one pasteurized egg (one ounce)
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 1/3 cup of powdered sugar

You’ll mix and knead the dough and shape the coffee cake the night before you want to eat it, so be sure to plan enough time — and enough refrigerator space to let it rise overnight!

Start by getting the dough ready. Heat the milk and butter together in the microwave. In my microwave, about a minute and a half is enough to warm the milk without scalding it. The butter won’t be completely melted — let the mixture sit on the counter a few minutes, and the butter will finish melting while the milk cools slightly. You don’t want the milk to be hot, just warm. Hot milk will curdle the egg and kill the yeast.

While the milk cools, mix your dry ingredients in a medium bowl: 2 cups of flour, sugar, salt, and yeast.  You’ll add the rest of the flour later.

Lightly beat your egg, and stir it into your milk and butter mixture, after testing to make sure the milk is just warm. It should be just a bit warmer than body temperature — a shade warmer than a baby’s bottle. If you drip a bit onto your wrist, you’ll feel warmth without getting burnt.

Stir the milk mixture into the dry mixture to make a sticky dough — you may need to use your hands to get all the flour incorporated into the dough.

This is a good time to point out that you can do this whole process using a stand mixture, if you want, from mixing the dry ingredients to kneading the dough. I would use the paddle attachment at first, and then change to the hook for kneading. However, I prefer to knead by hand, partly because I’m a traditionalist and partly because I think you get a better feel for the texture of the dough when you use your hands. My husband likes to use the mixer, because you can use the highest setting and get the kneading over with quickly.

Once the dry ingredients and milk are mixed, sprinkle about a quarter of a cup of flour onto a clean counter and turn the dough out onto the flour. Sprinkle another quarter cup on top, and knead the dough. To knead, use both hands to press down on the dough, fold it toward you, and give it a quarter turn before repeating the process. Continue kneading for about ten minutes (or as little as five minutes if you’re a very vigorous kneader). Add more flour as needed, sparingly — too much will make the dough feel dry when it’s baked. When the texture of the dough becomes firm and springy, it’s been kneaded enough. It’s not the addition of flour that causes the texture change so much as the kneading. Working the dough causes the wheat gluten to form, which is responsible for giving it the elastic feeling of a yeast bread.

When the dough has been kneaded to an elastic consistency so that it springs back when you press it, form it gently into a ball. Lightly oil a bowl (I just use the one I mixed the dough in), drop the ball of dough in, and then turn it over once so that it’s covered with oil. Place a cloth over the bowl and set it aside to rise for about an hour, until it’s doubled in size. The warmer the place you leave it, the faster it will rise — just don’t put it in a hot place, or the dough will start to bake and the yeast will die off.

While the dough is rising, make your filling. Start by chopping your dried fruit. What fruit you use is really your choice. Last year I used golden raisins, cranberries, pineapple, apricots, and papaya, along with pecans. This year I’m using dried cherries, cranberries, mangoes, dark raisins, and hazelnuts. The dried fruit, combined, should come to about a cup, and the chopped nuts should be about 1/4 to 1/2 cup.

 

Combine the sugar and spices. Add the melted butter and combine completely, then stir in the chopped fruit and nuts.

When the dough has risen until it’s doubled in size, the coffee cake is ready to shape. Give the dough a good punch to make it collapse. Then turn it out onto a lightly floured counter. Lightly flour a rolling pin, and roll the dough out into an isosceles triangle with a 12-inch base and 15-inch sides. I use the length of the rolling pin as a guide for the length of each side.

Once you have a good triangle shape, brush the dough with about a tablespoon of melted butter. Cover the dough evenly with the filling, leaving space along the edges.

Bring the sides together, pinching the filling-free edges firmly together to make a tight seam. Seal the bottom as well so filling doesn’t fall out when you transfer it to the pan. The best way I’ve come up with to get it from the counter onto the pan is to slide a rigid plastic sheet dusted with flour underneath the filled triangle (I use the plastic placemats my kids use for play dough), and then support it with a hand underneath and a hand on top as I quickly turn it over, seam downward, onto the oiled baking sheet.

Now, lightly score a guide line down the center of the triangle, from peak to base. Use sturdy kitchen scissors to cut slices into each side, ending about a quarter inch from the line. I made eight cuts in the one above. You could do more for smaller slices, but fewer cuts would make the slices too wide to easily do the next step.

Starting at the bottom, give each slice a firm downward twist, toward you (assuming you’re at the base of the triangle). Twist each one so that the filling is visible, and the ends are tilted forward slightly. Cover the tree lightly with plastic wrap, and place it into the fridge to rest and rise overnight.

In the morning, turn on the oven to 350, pull the coffee cake out of the fridge, and let it come to room temperature on the counter while the oven heats. If you have enough time, give the coffee cake a good half hour to rest before putting it into the oven. (It’s not going to make a big difference, but it will be slightly lighter in texture if it has time to warm to room temperature before baking.) Bake it at 350 for 20-30 minutes, till the bread is golden-brown and the filling is sizzling.

Allow the coffee cake to cool slightly while you mix the glaze or icing. To make a basic glaze, sift the powdered sugar into a measuring cup with a pour spout, then drizzle milk or water in, whisking, until it’s a thick, smooth, pouring consistency. Add vanilla. (Another option, especially if you used cranberries in the filling, is to use orange flavoring and add some orange zest.) Drizzle the glaze over the coffee cake in a decorative pattern. This type of glaze won’t show up much — it will soak into the warm coffee cake a little. Add colorful maraschino cherries, cut into halves, or bright-colored candied fruit, to give the effect of ornaments on a tree. I’ve always used both red and green cherries until last year — I’ve been unable to find green ones for the last two years. Maybe you’ll have better luck.

If you want your coffee cake to have a bright white icing like mine, use a royal icing instead of (or on top of) the glaze. I had some left over from decorating gingerbread cookies, so I used that for the coffee cake, with a very pretty effect. The recipe I’m giving here is Alton Brown’s recipe for royal icing, reduced to a third. A quick note: I was able to do the full sized recipe in my stand mixer with the whisk attachment, but the egg whites barely met the whisk at first, until I tilted the bowl upward. Once the whites got fluffy, it was fine. The single egg white won’t fill the mixer bowl enough for the whisk to do the job. To do this smaller recipe, use a hand mixer and a bowl.

To make royal icing, use one ounce of pasteurized egg white (the equivalent of one egg white). Beat it with a hand mixer, together with the vanilla, until it’s fluffy and white. Gradually add one and a third cups of icing sugar, beating at low speed. Once all the sugar is mixed in, continue beating at high speed until the icing is glossy and stiff. Use a plastic bag with a tiny corner snipped off, or an icing bag with a piping nozzle, or even a spoon, to drizzle over the coffee cake in a pretty design. Then add the candied cherries. The icing will harden fairly quickly and will retain its bright white look.

Click here for a printable PDF of the recipe:Tannenbaum Coffee Cake

Concise recipe format:Tannenbaum Coffee CakeTannenbaum Coffee Cake2Tannenbaum Coffee Cake3

 

All I Want For Christmas…

Christmas felt different this year. This year, at the age of four, Niko was more aware of the onset of Christmas than previous years yet. For one thing, he understands time a bit better, and the anticipation was agonizing. Grandma and Grandpa’s visit seemed unbearably far away, and, when wrapped gifts finally appeared under the tree, he inquired every day when it would be time to open them. The excitement, the longing, the anticipation — all were new.

This was the first time our son really thought about Christmas in terms of gifts. It was difficult for me, in a way, to see how much space gifts occupied in his mind. My family and my church didn’t celebrate Christmas at all as I was growing up, and I was raised to believe that one of the vices brought by Christmas is the avarice and materialism displayed by overindulgent gift giving. I’ve moved past that particular part of my upbringing, and I love Christmas now — lights, ornaments, gifts, and all. But despite my current embracing of the holiday, I cringed a bit at Niko’s obvious desire and worry that he might not be getting what he wanted. Since he saw some of his baby sister Sofie’s gifts but none of his ahead of time, the accumulation of Sofia’s gifts seemed to far outweigh his, and he was desperately worried that we had forgotten to get him any. On the other hand, his little Christmas list remained modest and consistent. I asked him some time ago what he wanted. His response was prompt and clear: “I want an Olaf snowman and an Olaf book and a toy dog.” Each time afterwards that we asked him for his Christmas list, he repeated the same items with only minimal variation. As anxious as he was over the gifts, he really had only three simple items that he desired.

But it wasn’t all about the anxiety of anticipation. He rejoiced in the colored lights, thrilled at the responsibility of plugging in the tree lights each morning, and delighted in learning Christmas songs at preschool. Opening the doors of the Advent calendar each night (well, many nights — I wasn’t that great at remembering to do it) was a ritual that he loved. In fact, he loves everything about the holiday. He loves the sparkling candles, the colorful ornaments, the hope of snow.

One day Niko, Sofia, and I went shopping at an outdoor mall we’d never visited before, and there was a giant lit tree in the center square with two lovely snow fairies posing for photos with passersby. His eyes lit up with amazement: “FAIRIES! Those are REAL fairies! Can we take a picture of them for Dad?” (His dad travels often, so Niko thinks in terms of taking pictures so Dad can see whatever it is we’re excited about.) He was absolutely amazed, and even more excited when he got to stand by them and have a picture taken. I’m pretty sure that was a highlight of his Christmas.

We saw Santa numerous times over the holiday, and Niko was never quite convinced that it was a person wearing a costume; he hasn’t really accepted our story of a kind man named Nicholas who lived long ago, whom we now remember as Santa Claus. He’s pretty sure Santa is real, and Mom and Dad just haven’t caught on yet. Every time he spied Santa his face would beam with pleasure. “There’s Santa!”

So it wasn’t all about the presents. Not even close. I’ll admit, though, I worried a little that Niko would be so overwhelmed by all the gifts we and his grandparents had gotten for him that he would forget gratitude, that he would become numb to the joy of finding something new in each package. But Niko is the master of being amazed, and he was thrilled with each and every gift.

To my delight,one of his favorite gifts was a fox face cut from an old shirt of his, that I sewed into a pillow and that he’s slept with every night since Christmas. It was inexpertly sewed, but still, the fox was a highlight. About a year ago, that shirt had been almost new. He’d sneaked away with his scissors one day and snipped all over the front of it. When I saw what he’d done, I was upset, and so was he, because he hadn’t realized how destructive the scissors were. He thought he’d never see that fox again. On Christmas Day, when he pulled the fox- shaped pillow out of his stocking, he recognized it right away. He smiled with his entire body as he hugged the little pillow. I guess the reason his pleasure over that pillow delighted me, too, is that it shows he isn’t entirely captivated by shiny new THINGS. He understood the value of the fox pillow immediately; realized that I’d taken something he’d destroyed, and lovingly transformed it into a huggable bedtime cuddle friend.  He understood that the pillow represented time spent, and hard work, and thoughtfulness, and he responded accordingly. His understanding and gratitude are now one of my favorite Christmas memories.

As it turns out, all I really wanted was to see genuine joy on my son’s face. I saw that, and suddenly all my worries about materialism and avarice evaporated. Watching open his Christmas presents was the most fun I can think of!

Here are some of Niko’s amazed faces:

Most Wonderful Time: Christmas Past and Present

Sparkling beaded garland stretches around a green tree, white lights are sprinkled across the green branches, while the shimmer and glitter of painted-glass ornaments catch and reflect the glow. Under the tree is a red-and-copper tree skirt I sewed several years ago when the perfect tree skirt refused to appear in shops. On the table, ornament-shaped candle holders dusted with gold and red glitter rest atop my grandmother’s hand-woven table runner next to tiny vases filled with wintry twigs and berries. A gold paper star in the window, lit from within by an electric tea light, sends out a gentle glow. Brightly-decorated nutcracker soldiers guard the fireplace, while a jolly ceramic snowman stays safe from a curious baby behind the sturdy iron screen. High on a shelf, a silver Advent calendar is ready to count down to Christmas. A tall Santa in stately robes presides over the living room’s festivities from the next shelf. Down below, a winter village has escaped from the pages of Charles Dickens’s books, the windows and street lights gleaming convincingly. Cheery colored lights embrace the front windows and the edge of the roof. Our favorite carols flow through the air. A baby’s dimpled hand stretches cautiously toward the twinkling lights, eyes wide with wonder, turning toward us for reassurance. A small boy dances around the room, pausing periodically to inspect the new finery. Talk of gifts and cards, wrapping paper and ribbon, and a chance of snow next week, all twine through the air, merging with sparkle and glow to form an unmistakable feeling: the holiday season is upon us.

I’ve only been celebrating Christmas for about twelve or thirteen years, so the candles and lights and music feel new and exciting to me, too. I don’t stare and dance like my children, but I revel in the explosion of holiday decor all the same.

I grew up in a peaceful, prayerful commune that was strictly nonobservant of all holidays — well, except for Thanksgiving. Christmas wasn’t as bad as Halloween, the devil’s day, but we still regarded Christmas celebrants with a certain amount of sorrow and pity. We pitied all those foolish people who’d never figured out that Jesus was born at harvest time, not in the middle of winter. We felt a certain scorn for those who didn’t know that the season was a continuation of Druidic and Pagan and Roman holidays, all in celebration of other gods. And hadn’t anyone pointed out to them that Santa is an anagram of Satan?

It never occurred to me that people might simply not care about all those valuable facts.

People crave light and color, especially green, in midwinter. It’s especially notable in northern climates, where winter is dull and grey. The shortness of those monochrome days does something to the psyche. And the month or so leading up to the Winter Solstice is the perfect time to push back at the darkness. People like to claim that “Jesus is the reason for the season,” but if that were really the case, we’d be celebrating in October-ish and our motifs would be straw, tiny babies, and pregnant mothers; not glittering lights and shining gold and silver. Solstice has been celebrated for millennia; Christmas is a newcomer to the scene. The darkness, my friends, is the reason for the season. Darkness, and a craving for light. And there’s no shame in admitting that.

I remember the winter my mom’s best friend got (re)married. She has been like a second mother to me, and her generous spirit makes her well loved in the trio of communes where I lived. We wanted her wedding to be perfect. A winter wedding was uncommon, so we had no season-appropriate decorations ready to be reused, no fresh flowers to brighten the rooms. Someone had the bright idea to twine green garland and white twinkle lights around the stairway banister in the main house on our farm. “But won’t that seem a little… Christmassy?” someone worried. Everyone considered the problem for a moment. As one, we all silently decided: we didn’t care. The garland and lights went up, not just on the banister, but on the front porch rail as well. The following year, those decorations quietly appeared again in November. And again the year after that. No one called them Christmas lights. No one even mentioned them. But our winter-starved eyes drank in the glow and the green, like stranded desert travelers bask in the cool of an oasis.

These days, long after my departure from the farms, everyone is a bit more relaxed about the holiday. They have a big Christmas dinner with lots of visitors from the village. Some families put up trees and even share gifts. You can occasionally hear Christmas carols, maybe even in the church service. You could look around a living room on Christmas Eve and never know you were on a highly conservative religious commune. It’s almost…normal. It doesn’t surprise me. That first garland meant that full-blown Christmas was an inevitable eventuality. Once you experience the lifting of the spirits that comes with the lights and glitter, it’s hard to go back.

As I look around my cozy living room, at my little ones awed and delighted by the new festive decorations, I feel the reassurance that back home, they’re doing the some of the same things. It’s a connection that is strangely meaningful to me — strange, that is, considering how far removed my life now is from what it was. I guess it’s a little personal sign that says: It’s okay. No matter how far you go, you’ll always be connected; this will always be home. And there it is. Connection: the second “reason for the season.” The sense that we are together, even when we’re apart. That our love doesn’t have to grow thin as the physical distance stretches between us. Family is family, and always will be.