Saturday

Merry Christmas from the Herb Gardener


Well, after most of the planning, shopping, worrying, cleaning and baking are out of the way (we probably all have wrapping left to do), Christmas is nigh -- as they used to say.  As hectic and demanding as the holidays are, I still love them. Sometimes I love them more in hindsight, it's true. Luckily for me, after the hoopla dies down, memories of a handful of delightful, touching and profound moments make the madness worthwhile.

Whether you live in a charming stone cottage in the woods with the perfect family or are dealing with grief, health problems or financial woes, I wish you a peaceful, life affirming Christmas. By visiting my blog this year, you've made my days more interesting and rewarding. Many of you have expanded my knowledge of herbs as well as my curiosity about more topics than I can mention here. Thank you -- thank you all.

Sara

Wednesday

The Best Hot Rum Toddy Recipe Ever

If you like rum and only try one new recipe for the holidays, make it this one.  This little beauty will make you tolerant of discarded wrapping paper, glasses off their coasters and uncovered goodies littering the shelves of the refrigerator.  Let me put it this way: A rum toddy or two can be positively medicinal during the holidays -- in the nicest possible way.

I've made this concoction many times, adding my own refinements to a basic recipe I discovered online.  It's my favorite. If you try it, I'm pretty sure it'll be your favorite, too.  When you consider your aching feet and the incipient headache that always comes with a surfeit of family fun, is it too much to ask for one beverage that puts a twinkle back in your eye?  Absolutely not!

So here's to a good night's sleep and the lingering aroma of butter and spices on the air.

Hot Rum Toddy Recipe

Ingredients

  • 1/2 lb. brown sugar (I like light because that's what I usually have lying around.)
  • 1/2 tsp. fresh ground nutmeg
  • 1/2 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp. ground cardamom (This one's important - but it's so worth it)
  • 1/2 tsp. ground cloves
  • 1/2 tsp. ground ginger
  • Pinch allspice
  • 2 tbsp. honey
  • 1 stick of butter (salted is best)
  • Rum (Dark rum adds flavor, but I usually serve light.  Hey, why not try both?)
The idea here is to make a butter batter you can use later.

Combine brown sugar and spices. Stir to incorporate.

Add butter and honey. Blend well.  I usually do this with my hands.  

Place the mixture in the fridge (in a resealable container because you'll be dipping into it often). It'll have the consistency of clay or a stiff dough.

The honey and sugar are both preservatives, so the batter will last until Valentine's Day. And isn't that a nice bonus.

To Serve:

Put two rounded tablespoons of batter in a 12 + oz. mug.

Add 6 ounces of boiling water (It really has to be boiling.)

Add 1 1/2 to 2-1/2 jiggers of rum (depending on how strong you like your beverages)

Stir thoroughly (until the sugar dissolves).

Serve with a cinnamon stick for quick DIY stirrer. A dollop of whipped cream is a nice touch, too.

This recipe will make about 8 servings

Special note: Last year I was fooling around and added hot apple cider instead of water.  It was delicious.

Saturday

The Secret to Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookies and Other Holiday Baking Tips

Christmas Cookies
My husband and I used to make well over a hundred dozen Christmas cookies every year. The process grew from our early successes until we became a kind of amateur cookie factory operating from a residential zip code. Santa's elves had nothing on us. We worked diligently over two weekends in December and invested in all the pretty wrapping, ribbon and tins to decorate our projects. We tested new recipes throughout the year and lusted after the secret of a perfect chocolate chip cookie.

After about five years, the project became so enormous and daunting that we scaled back and eventually stopped cookie production. We were ahead of the cookie making craze somewhat, so by the end we were receiving almost as many cookie presents as we were giving -- way too many to eat ourselves or leave for Santa and his minions.

I still have some recommendations for holiday baking projects, though. The articles below are getting on in years, but they still offer some sound advice on how to prep a pie crust, make bulk cookies and put together a fun-filled gingerbread house project. There are also a few cookie making secrets I've been hoarding:

Chocolate chip cookie secret - If you like a cookie that's moist and chewy on the inside but slightly crunchy on the outside, here's the secret: Prep the cookies up to and including dropping the dough onto the cookie sheet -- then freeze the cookie sheet with the raw, formed dough right on it. Once frozen, bake cookies as you would normally, but check carefully for doneness. They may need to cook an additional three minutes or so. You'll end up with the perfect, chewy chocolate chip cookie.

Cool cookies on elevated racks -
For years we skipped this part, cooling t cookies right on the cookie sheet. When you let cookies cool on racks, they'll firm up better and are much less likely to crack and crumble.

Drain cookies on brown paper bags - Most cookies contain quite a bit of butter, margarine or shortening. You can lose some of the grease after baking by letting the cookies sit on cut pieces of brown paper bag for a couple of hours. You'll be surprised at the grease slick they leave behind.

Nestle cookies in cupcake papers - You know those fluted cupcake papers you can buy at the market. They make very nice individual holders for a stack of cookies, too. If you're putting together a decorative platter or tin, they help corral your cookies and keep them safer for transport -- just a thought.

Here are the articles I promised. The tips are sound. I've used them for years:

Christmas Cookie Baking
Tips for Making the Perfect Holiday Pie
Making a Gingerbread House

This is a big holiday baking weekend, so put on some Christmas music and make yourself some spiced cider. While you're elbow deep in cookie making it can seem like an incredible hassle, but after the flour's cleared and the cookies are all nestled in their containers, you'll know Christmas morning is just around the corner.

Oh, for some background on a few traditional favorites:

Homemade Sugar Plums
Candy Canes and Peppermints
Perfect Homemade Eggnog

Have fun!

Friday

How to Make Spicy Mustard

Mustard is a bit like wine. Everyone has a favorite. Good mustard can enhance the flavor of everything from salmon to salad dressing, so sticking with the same old imported mustard (or selecting standard ballpark yellow mustard) is just unimaginative. If the idea of spending a fortune to expand your mustard repertoire doesn't appeal to you, give mustard making a try. It's fun and pretty easy.

Homemade mustard will last for months in the fridge. You can keep it chunky or grind it down for a smooth, creamy base with just enough mustard bits to add interest. You can also spice it up for big flavor in every bite. I love a good mustard, and one nice thing about making your own is that your handcrafted recipe can rival the best mustards out there.

Here's a basic recipe that straddles the fence between bland and zesty. Oh, and since we're in the middle of the holiday countdown, homemade mustard makes a very tasty gift. This recipe yields two to three cups, so there's enough for a couple of small jars (and a pot to keep for yourself, too).

Homemade Mustard Recipe

1 cup beer (Using a dark beer adds flavor.)
1-1/2 cups vinegar (I like Champagne vinegar best, but apple cider vinegar and wine vinegar also work well.)
1/2 cup plus one tablespoon mustard seeds (yellow)
1 small white onion (chopped)
4 Garlic cloves (chopped or crushed)
2 oz. dried, ground mustard
2 tbsp. cold water
2 tsp. sugar
1 tsp. sea salt
1/4 tsp. cumin, ground
1/4 tsp. allspice, ground
1/4 tsp. white pepper, ground


Instructions

Combine beer and mustard seeds and refrigerate over two nights in a glass or ceramic container.

Simmer vinegar, sugar, onion and garlic in a non-reactive pan for an hour on medium heat. The liquid should reduce by more than half. Set aside to cool. Once cooled, strain the mixture through two lengths of cheesecloth.

Combine water, mustard powder, salt and other spices. Stir thoroughly to incorporate and let stand at room temperature for an hour.

While the powdered mustard is rehydrating, run the beer mixture through a food processor to grind the softened mustard seeds to the desired consistency.

Slowly add the strained vinegar mixture to the spice mixture, stirring constantly.

Combine the beer mixture with the vinegar mixture in a heavy saucepan.

Simmer for 20 minutes or until the mustard thickens.

Cool and seal in a jar with a tight fitting lid.

Let the mustard cure in a cool, dark location for 10 days to two weeks (the longer the better).

Thursday

A Few Tips and Tricks as Christmas Approaches

I'm in the middle of so many Christmas Projects that it looks like Santa's sleigh exploded in my living room. I have to admit, the chaos looks pretty nice, actually. I have some quick miscellaneous tips and suggestions that may help with your holiday planning -- and hopefully with less mess than I've gotten myself into:

Wrap Your Presents with Fabric

Consider wrapping some presents in fabric this year. Festive cotton fabrics are available for as little as $2 a yard. With a pair of pinking shears (to help eliminate raveling) you can cut custom sized fabric pieces for wrapping with double sided tape and ribbon. For family gift giving, you can use the fabric from year to year and avoid adding all that paper wrap to your nearest overflowing landfill. This year there may be some expense involved in making the changeover, but next year and the year after the shift will be pretty painless. The bigger your stockpile of cut fabrics, the less you'll waste on paper wrap. If you want a nice crease when wrapping with fabric, just eyeball where the fold will be and use the edge of your scissors to pre-crease a line.

Your presents will look pretty and unique, and the process will be more eco-friendly. (Yes, cotton production uses more pesticides than almost any other crop, but you'll save some trees by using fabric as wrapping, eliminate waste and show your kids you care about the environment.)

Scent Your Pinecones, Decorative Logs and Cloth Ornaments

Those amazing cinnamon scented pinecones that cost a fortune make for an easy DIY project. Better yet, you can scent infuse just about anything that will absorb essential oil. From decorative hearth logs to plush display toys and rustic ornaments, just brush or spritz on some cinnamon, clove, pine, or vanilla essential oil on them and you'll have instant Christmas cheer -- from a bottle.

You can find essential oils (with directions for use) in most craft stores and many variety stores, and they'll be a lot less expensive than buying scented holiday accessories every year. Oh, and if you have scented accessories from last year that have lost their olfactory oomph, just re-charge them with a little oil. Scent is one of the most memory-evocative of the senses, so make your Christmas smell amazing with essential oil.

Travel Bug Safe

Bed bugs are rampant in hotels across the country. If you're concerned about bringing bed bugs home from your travels this holiday season, essential oils can help. Spray your luggage with diluted lavender essential oil to make your belongings less appealing to bed bugs. After you get back home, place you luggage in the bathtub for 24 hours. Check at night by turning on the light in the darkened bathroom. If you see any bugs scurrying around the bottom of the tub (the tub sides are so slippery they can't get out), you have a problem. Remove your luggage to the outdoors for further treatment, and wash the visible critters down the drain. If you're concerned about being bitten while traveling, try spraying your nightclothes with lavender water. You'll be a less appealing target for a quick meal.

I'm off to bake a batch of oatmeal scotchies -- and probably eat a few. Have a great evening.

Friday

Giving Meaningful Holiday Gifts

My family has always been heavily invested in giving gifts at Christmas. It's the biggest outlay of cash we spend all year long. The gifts themselves are sometimes practical, occasionally silly and always carefully planned to please. Finding the right present and watching the happy reaction when it's opened is pretty darned satisfying, even if it can get pricy. I have to admit that in the past I've spent more on holiday gifts than I could comfortably afford. When I started making herb and cooking related gifts, that stopped to a degree, though.

Taking Some of the Commercialism out of Christmas

This was around the time I began to consider the possibility that Christmas was becoming too commercial -- for my taste, anyway. It's funny, because I recall my mother expressing this same sentiment a few decades earlier. That was in reaction to seeing community Christmas decorations going up the day after Thanksgiving. Nowadays, they're up before Halloween. Some internal reckoning changed my perception of Christmas. I'm not even sure what brought it about. Maybe waiting in line behind surly Christmas shoppers and dealing with overworked sales clerks made me feel sad and discouraged. I know that watching mall visitors raging at one another over parking spaces made me question the virtue of a holiday that can make some people (good people, too) so uncharitable, while espousing the virtues of joy, faith and fellowship. Well, this is all old news -- the commercialization of the holidays.

Christmas Gifts to MakeThat's when I decided I wanted to make gifts instead of buy them (mostly). Once I began preparing herb wreaths, flavored vinegars, scented candles, soaps and other homemade crafts for gift giving, I realized that for a few years I'd just been going through the motions. Most of the delight was absent -- smothered by all the commercialism and silliness. It's hard to imagine any reasonable person feeling anything but chagrin at the prospect of spending hours wrapping presents only to have the paper ripped off in a frenzy and summarily discarded. (I'm an advocate of reusable fabric wrapping.)

Making Christmas

This is my way of saying that sometimes 'making' Christmas instead of 'buying' Christmas is the best solution to the holiday blues. It'll put you in touch with your inner merrymaker. It'll remind you that "made by hand" is still the most intimate and touching way to give a gift. If you start now, you'll have time to make some great holiday gifts this year. You might decide you really like the handmade-homemade approach and start using it for year round gift giving, too. I hope so.

Over the years, I've posted lots of craft projects that make good gifts. Most use herbs, but even if you don't grow and dry your own herbs for winter use, you can buy dried lavender, vanilla beans, calendula and others on the internet or at your local craft store. In almost every case, you can create a batch of homemade gifts less expensively than you can purchase them. Think of the task as employing the economies of scale to buy the raw materials for multiple gifts. You'll be making presents, enjoying the process (I am certain of it), and saving money -- all at the same time. It's a Christmas miracle.

Christmas Gifts to MakeChristmas Herb Projects to Make

These past posts will give you some ideas, but there are thousands of ways you can make Christmas more personal and satisfying by crafting gifts yourself. One year long ago, my Godfather gave my family a miniature fence he'd made of interlocking twigs designed to go around the base of the Christmas tree. It looked rustic and perfect corralling a big pile of presents. That little fence was one of the first homemade gifts I'd ever seen. I found it mesmerizing that one could pick little twigs up off the ground and fashion them into something useful. Who knew? It was an Aha! moment for me, and one you can share with your own family.

A simple way to start is to mix homemade spice or sugar blends. Add some matching jars (and maybe colorful labels) and you'll have a gift that will provide good value and tasty meals for months. These recipes will get you started:
If some people on your Christmas list think cooking is for fools who don't appreciate the value of takeout, try putting together a lavender sachet or try these other options. They make pleasant gifts and go together pretty quickly:




If you start now, you'll have time to mix together a tasty dill vinegar too. In a decorative decanter it will make very nice hostess gift.

I'll add more suggestions as I recall them, but a couple of these will help to get you in a holiday mood.