Since we moved from Los Angeles to Oregon, life has slowed way down our holidays have been pared down to only the most enjoyable and simple of traditions. After years spent traveling, splitting time between three families, we no longer travel to see family during the holidays. They know where we are and are very welcome to visit us. In fact, we have friends staying for the holidays this year which is lovely because this house is made for hosting. I love sharing our favorite holiday traditions, the more the merrier!
Tree shopping at the ice cream store
Gone are the days of rushing to Los Angeles tree lots, (is that Heidi Klum and Seal?) to get a good tree before they sell out. Seriously, if you don't arrive early you, just may be out of luck.
Now, we head into “town” which is a 20-minute drive down curvy blind-corner roads — to have our pick of trees from the local ice cream store. Yup, our tree farm is also the parking lot of a Pepto Bismol pink ice cream parlor — and it's wonderful. We grab a scoop of salted caramel, a handful of taffy, and browse the fragrant stalls of freshly cut, local trees. It's cold out but it is so much fun, and the tree always smells amazing.
Back at home, my son and I laugh as my husband insists the tree is “completely straight” in the tree stand, then complains when we ask him to adjust it again, and again. We then spend ages trying to remember how we strung the lights last year. Did we go around in circles or in swooping layers as they do on the Rockefeller tree?
Once the lights are ready we countdown and light it up. This is when my husband realizes we have once again managed to sneak in one lone strand of twinkle lights —much to my delight and his dismay. I also happen to love the hodgepodge mix of warm and cool lights, all part of the tree tradition. We pop on a Christmas Playlist, make hot cider, and decorate the tree.
Holiday light show at the marina
When we first moved here I was scanning the local paper for holiday activities and saw this headline for a main attraction holiday lights View Light Show at the Marina. Back in LA, we loved to pile in the car and visit new neighborhoods, discovering new pockets of brightly lit homes. This sounded like a fun, new coastal experience to try. We planned an entire evening around it packing up blanks, cookies, and cocoa. We even planned to arrive early for a good spot. Hilariously, the main attraction turned out to be a handful of rather sadly lit boats, halfheartedly decorated with a string or two of lights and a plastic wreath. We laughed to the point of tears and of course re-enact the moment every year as another holiday tradition.
Christmas eve fish chowder
Growing up our holiday meals were made from scratch and we would spend days in the kitchen prepping for Christmas Day dinner. Practical (and probably exhausted) my grandmother's Christmas eve dinner was always simple — fish chowder with warm crusty bread.
During the early years on my marriage, since my husband wasn’t yet a lover of fish (I've changed that), we had a make-your-own-pizza party for Christmas Eve dinner. My husband still petitions to bring pizza night back but is always outnumbered. A simple fish chowder with halibut or cod, a green salad, and crusty bread is our traditional dinner. I'm dairy free so I sub coconut milk for cream, it much lighter than a normal chowder —and delicious.
I used to be one of the people I now admire, the ones with the energy and motivation to bake a variety of different cookies at this time of year. I love looking at the different designs and colors of all the cookies — but as I said earlier, things are more simple now.
I would normally skip over sugar cookies in favor of anything with chocolate. Usually, they are dry, bland, and lack that holiday pizza, which is probably why most are drowned in icing. It's taken years to create the recipe below, the perfect buttery, shortbread-like sugar cookie. They are so good you may even want to skip the icing in favor of a few sprinkles...
They are simple and easy for kids to help you make. I have two huge tins full of cookie cutters that I’ve collected over the years and my son has been in charge of selecting the cookie cutter shapes and rolling out the dough since he was 4. It just wouldn’t be Christmas without these.
I hope you love them as much as we do. Thanks for reading this little departure from my usual blog posts. If you'd like to see more like this, leave a comment and let me know.
THE VERY BEST SUGAR COOKIES
Yield: 15—18 2½ inch cookies
For the sugar cookies
1¾ cups all-purpose flour
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon baking powder
¾ cups (1½ sticks) unsalted butter, softened
2 tablespoons cold vegetable shortening
⅔ cup sugar
1 large egg
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
For the basic royal icing
2 cups confectioners’ sugar, sifted
2 large egg whites
2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
Make the classic sugar cookies
In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, salt, and baking powder and set aside.
In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter, shortening, and sugar together until light and fluffy. Add the egg and vanilla and beat until just combined. Add the flour mixture and mix until incorporated. Wrap the dough in plastic and refrigerate for at least 4 hours.
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
Dust a work surface with a sprinkling of flour. Unwrap the chilled dough, and put it directly on the work surface. Roll the dough ¼ inch thick. Use your favorite cookie cutter to cut shapes in the dough, and transfer the cookies to the prepared baking sheets.
Bake the cookies for 12 minutes, until they are set but not browned. Remove from the oven and place the baking sheet on a cooling rack for 5 minutes. Use a spatula to transfer the cookies to the rack to cool completely.
Make the basic royal icing
In a large bowl, whisk together the sugar, egg whites, and lemon juice until the mixture is completely smooth. The mixture should have the texture of a glaze. If the mixture is too thin, add a bit more sugar. If the mixture is too thick, add a few drops of lemon juice. You can add a few drops of food coloring if desired, or you can divide the icing among many mixing bowls if you need more than one color.
The best way to ice sugar cookies is with a pastry bag fitted with a small or medium tip. First, outline the cookie or design, then fill it in. Let the icing harden before serving.
The cookies can be kept in an airtight container for up to 3 days.