The Christmas Plan

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OK, let’s be honest.  Holidays demand a lot of Mom.  If you’re not careful, you can easily get buried in all the preparation and miss out on much of the JOY of the Christmas season.  Been there; done that.   When I discovered my Christmas plan it reduced my stress levels by 75%.  Being a rather distractible type, I find it best to assign each week of December a particular focus.  Here’s how it works.

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Week 1 (the week after Thanksgiving) – Focus:  GIFTS

In this week I attempt to get all gifts bought and wrapped.   For me, this generally begins on Black Friday when the women in my family go on an all day shopping adventure.  In a good year, I get 90 % of my shopping done on this day.  That leaves the rest of the week for getting those gifts wrapped and tagged.  Way, WAY better than the days when I would stay up until the wee hours on Christmas Eve wrapping gifts after the kids were in bed.

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Week 2 – Focus: DECORATIONS

This is the week I do my best to turn our home into a magical Christmas environment.  Here’s a tip I learned one year that has made all the difference for me.  To avoid giving your house a cluttered feel, take down a lot of your home’s every day décor and replace it with the Christmas décor.  In the old days Christmas decorations just felt like adding more clutter to my already well-cluttered home.  Now it’s a refreshing break from the every day which makes a welcome return about mid January.  By the way, you can find TONS of Christmas decorations at great prices if you shop garage sales.  I’ve even found several of my St. Nicholas Square buildings this way, often complete with their box and packing Styrofoam.  I also pick up some items from the store at 75% off  in the days following Christmas.

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Week 3 – Focus:  BAKING AND CANDY MAKING

By waiting until week 3, I significantly reduce the number of days I’ll be wolfing down these sweet treats and the cookies will be fresher for the visitors and parties that begin popping up about now.  Below, I will share some of my favorite candy recipes.  Turtles are our specialty and we still work like a well oiled machine when my boys are around to help with assembly.  If all the stars align, I might actually get some plates of goodies put together to share with friends.

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Week 4 – LOOSE ENDS, REST and REFLECTION

Even before I came up with my 4 week plan, I understood that I should shoot to have all preparation completed a week before Christmas.  There has to be some margin and some time to focus on the spiritual side of the holiday.  At this point I change my Christmas music from traditional to Christ-centered.  I might find time to read short Christmas stories or to reread the original Christmas story in the Bible.  I try to find some time to relax, and enjoy some hot chocolate and cookies in the light of the Christmas tree.   We have occasionally also found ways to serve in the community at this point.  But there are still practicalities.  I also use this week to put the house in order.  Some of you are blessed to live in order.  We are not.  It takes a very conscious effort on my part to get there.  Also, while I do focus on completing the tasks in their given week, there are usually a few loose ends that don’t get done.  I try to allow enough time in this week to complete whatever needs completing.

Erased off Memory Card 268Erased off Memory Card 275   There you have it.  Nothing earth shattering, but it has made all the difference to me these last several years that I have applied this system.   Whatever you are doing, you’re likely doing too much.  Ask yourself and your family what really matters and make that your highest priority.  We gave up Christmas cards years ago; our outdoor decorations are pathetically simple; I reduced the varieties of cookies and candies;  homemade gifts seem to have fallen by the wayside.  We do make time to watch Christmas movies, go out with friends,  take in some Christmas concerts.   I don’t do much formal hosting during December – just an open house on the night of the 25th – though we do enjoy when friends just drop by informally.   Let’s go easy on ourselves.  Christmas is not about who can check off the longest to-do list.  It’s about remembering our purpose: to love God and those he gives us.  Be embraced in the love of Jesus.   Have a blessed Christmas.   

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As promised, here are some of our favorite candy recipes.  I don’t make all of these in any given year, but turtles and peanut butter balls are an absolute must.

Cream Cheese Mints

3 oz. cream cheese, softened
½ tsp. peppermint extract
3 c. powdered sugar
food coloring if desired
extra fine granulated sugar

Combine cream cheese and extract.  Gradually beat in powdered sugar with electric mixer until mixture is smooth.  (Knead in the last of the powdered sugar with your hands.)  Knead in food coloring.  Sprinkle candy mold lightly with granulated sugar.  Make small balls and roll in the granulated sugar, then press into mold OR flatten with the bottom of a glass.  LET AIR DRY OVERNIGHT on waxed paper.  Can be frozen up to 1 month.  Makes 6-8 dozen.

Fudge

Place in a large bowl: 

12 oz. Semi sweet chocolate chips
1 cup walnuts, chopped (optional)
1 tsp. vanilla* (or peppermint extract)
1 stick butter, softened

 Place in a heavy kettle:

6 oz. Evaporated milk
10 large marshmallows
2 cups granulated sugar

 Bring to boil stirring constantly.  Boil 6 minutes.  Pour over ingredients in bowl and stir until butter and chocolate chips melt.  Put in greased 8” square pan.  Allow to cool and get firm.

*For an extra special treat, add 1 tsp. of cinnamon to the vanilla extract version.

Peanut Butter Balls

2 c. peanut butter
2 c. graham cracker crumbs
2 c. powdered sugar
¼ c. (½ stick) butter
1- 1½ lb.  Ambrosia brand REAL milk chocolate chunk, melted.

Mix together everything but chocolate.  Form into ¾” balls and place on waked paper on cookie sheets.  Freeze for at least 2 hours (but probably not more than 24 hours unless tightly covered).

Melt chocolate according to package directions. [I melt it in a double boiler, but the microwave works too.]  The important thing is not to get the chocolate too hot.  Before melting, cut off two 1” x 1” chunks and set aside.  After the rest of the chocolate is smoothly melted, remove it from the heat and drop the reserved chunks into the chocolate.  Stir continually until the chunks have melted completely.  This is called tempering and should prevent the chocolate candies from developing a white haze on the top.]

The key here is to keep the peanut butter balls well frozen before dipping; take out only as many pieces as you can effectively work with at a time.  For an experienced “dipper” that might be about 50.   Drop frozen peanut butter balls into melted chocolate one at a time.  Quickly remove with two spoons, making sure it is completely covered with chocolate.  Place on wax-paper lined cookie sheets and allow chocolate to harden for a few hours.  (If you are in a hurry, candies can be hardened in the freezer in about 15 minutes, but hardening on the counter seems to make them less melty.)  Store in tightly sealed container away from heat.

Turtles

 2 – 2 ½ pounds real milk chocolate
1 can Eagle Brand sweetened condensed milk
1 lb. pecan halves

 Place unopened can of milk in large kettle well covered with water.  Bring to full boil, then reduce to simmer.  Simmer 3 hours adding water if necessary to make sure can remains well covered with water.  Allow can to cool before opening it to reveal the caramel.

Melt chocolate 1 lb. at a time.  [I melt it in a double boiler, but the microwave works too.  The important thing is not to get the chocolate too hot.  Before melting, cut off two 1” x 1” chunks and set aside.  After the rest of the chocolate is smoothly melted, remove it from the heat and drop the reserved chunks into the chocolate.  Stir continually until the chunks have melted completely.  This is called tempering and should prevent the chocolate candies from developing a white haze on the top.]  Spoon small amount of chocolate onto wax paper and swirl into 2” circles.  Place pecans on chocolate circles.  If pecans are very large, use one whole pecan plus 3 half pecans.

Turtles

Spoon ½ teaspoon caramel onto center of candy.  Cover with melted chocolate sealing caramel in while leaving tips of pecans sticking out.  Freeze for 10 minutes.

This works best as an assembly line.

Assign one person to be the chocolatier.   He makes the 2” chocolate circles then sends the pan around the table.  When it comes back to him, he tops the turtles with chocolate.

Another person or two can place the pecans on the chocolate circles and then pass the pans on to the caramel man.

The caramel man (all my helpers were sons) drops a small dollop of caramel in the center of the pecans, then returns the pan to the chocolatier.

If there are helpers to spare, put one person in charge of running the pans to and retrieving the pans from the freezer.  They can also peel the hardened turtles off the waxed paper and place them in an airtight container.

If you are fortunate enough to have yet another helper, put that one in charge of chocolate melting.  He can melt the next batch of chocolate while the assembly line is using up the previous batch.

If you are doing gift bags, another person can be in charge of filling and tying plastic bags of turtles and then placing them in the gift bags and attaching labels.

Peanut Butter Patties

(The girl scouts have got nothing on us!)

Sandwich peanut butter between two Ritz crackers.  Dip in melted milk chocolate and set on waxed paper to harden.  Yum!

Peanut Clusters

1 cup milk chocolate chips
1 cup semi sweet chocolate chips
1 cup butterscotch chips
1 lb. salted peanuts
(may also add in 6 oz. chow mien noodles)

Melt chips.  Stir in peanuts (and noodles) until well coated.  Drop by spoonfuls onto waxed paper and refrigerate.

Peanut Brittle

1 ½ tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. water
1 tsp. vanilla
1 ½ c. sugar
1 c. water
1 cup light corn syrup
3 Tbs. butter
1 lb. raw Spanish peanuts

Butter two 12 x 15 cookie sheets.  Keep warm.  Combine soda, vanilla, and 1 tsp. water.  Set aside.

Combine sugar, 1 cup water and corn syrup in large kettle.  Cook over medium hear, stirring occasionally, to 240 degrees.

Stir in butter and peanuts.  Cook, stirring constantly, to 300 º.  DO NOT BURN!  Remove from heat.      IMMEDIATELY stir in soda mixture.  Pour half of mixture onto each warm baking sheet.  Quickly spread as thin as possible.  Cool on counter.  Break into pieces.

Cinnamon Glazed Pecans

1 egg white
1 Tbs. water
1 lb. pecans
¾ c. sugar
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. salt

In large bowl, eat egg white and water until frothy (not stiff) then dump pecans in mixture and stir to coat well.  Mix cinnamon, salt and sugar in a small bowl, then pour over pecans and stir to coat well.  Spread in a single layer on greased baking sheet at 300°  for 30 minutes, stirring after 15 minutes.  Remove to waxed paper immediately upon taking out of oven or they will get stuck to pan.   Ready to eat after they have cooled for about 5 minutes.

Chocolate Covered Pretzels

Melt white or milk chocolate in microwave.  Dip pretzels in chocolate.  Set on waxed paper and freeze 10 minutes.  (This is a great way to use up the extra chocolate after making turtles or peanut butter balls.)

Even Easier Chocolate Pretzels

Buy the circle shaped pretzels.  Line cookie sheet with foil.  Unwrap chocolate kisses (or white hugs) and place one in the hollow center of each pretzel.  Bake at 350° for 3-5 minutes, then flatten with a knife and remove from foil as soon as it is cool enough to handle.  This is made especially interesting if you use the white chocolate/peppermint “hugs” that come out at Christmastime.

If you, like some of my family members, are particular about proportions and would like more pretzel to your chocolate, you can do this same thing using the square “grid” kind of pretzels.  Set kiss on top of one square and after you take it out of the oven, make a sandwich out of it by squishing it with another pretzel square.

Cinnamon Sugar Pretzels

6-16 oz.  pretzel twists
2/3 cup vegetable oil
½  cup sugar
2 tsp cinnamon

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Pour pretzels into a roasting pan. In a medium sized bowl mix together vegetable oil, cinnamon and sugar. Pour over pretzels and stir to coat. Place in oven and bake for 30 minutes, removing twice to stir.

Orange Creamsicle Truffles

 Makes 20 truffles

1/4 cup butter
Zest of 1/2 orange
3 Tbsp heavy cream
1 cup white chocolate chips
1/2 tsp orange extract
1/4 cup powdered sugar
Red and yellow food coloring (optional)

Pour white chocolate chips into a mixing bowl, set aside. Melt butter along with orange zest in a small saucepan. Stir in cream and scald mixture. Pour hot cream mixture through a fine mesh sieve over white chocolate chips and using a rubber spatula press zest against sieve to release orange oils into mixture. Allow mixture to rest 1 minute, add orange extract and optional food coloring to white chocolate chip mixture then stir until smooth.

Cover mixture and refrigerate 2 hours or until firm enough to handle. Scoop mixture out by heaping teaspoonfuls and form into balls then roll in powdered sugar. Freeze truffles 20 minutes then enjoy.

Store truffles in refrigerator as they will soften at room temperature or freeze for up to 1 month.

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