By Tisa Conway-Cunningham
It’s the holidays! Thanksgiving has come and gone, and now the drive to host the perfect Christmas celebration has kicked into overdrive. If you are anything like me, all we want for Christmas is for our family to be happy.
Start by laying a solid foundation rooted in family traditions and familiarities. You know what I am talking about. Yes, put up the tree, with lights, garland, ornaments, candy canes and sprinkle the house with enough Christmas décor and silver icicles that you will be picking it off your clothes well into the new year. I know it’s a task, but the tradition of raising a tree, donned with decades of recycled ornaments acts as a physical masterpiece that signals the start of the Christmas season. So, even if it is a small table topper tree for one or two, put out the tree.
Beyond the tree, you have creative rights to insert whatever makes your family’s celebration unique to your holiday traditions. Remember, this is a time that family and friends come together to celebrate life, love and each other. So, do what makes you feel good.
Food, however, is the real reason we are here. Growing up, my mother made sure she had a big Thanksgiving meal and an equally big Christmas meal. Each one was packed with traditional holiday flavors. In my home, we always had a roasted turkey, honey baked ham, mac and cheese, broccoli casserole, sweet potatoes, homemade dressing balls, gravy, corn pudding, mashed potatoes, greens or green beans, cranberry sauce, rolls, and anything else mom felt the need to put on the table.
She would cook so much food that remnants of Thanksgiving dinner would be looming around in the fridge to right before Christmas. Then mom would repeat this all over again for Christmas. It was a lot, but we still loved it the same. It always made for some good eating sessions and some delicious leftovers, but too much repetition can burn your tastebuds out.
Let us not forget the toll that the holidays take on the family chef. When mom got to the point where she was not getting around so easily, this title fell into my lap. During the holidays, most of the three or four days surrounding the big day are dedicated to the meal. I would cook for days, and it would not end until well into the evening on Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Rarely, did I have time to sit down and just enjoy my family. Everyone was waiting for dinner, and I had to deliver. I would cook, clean and put away leftovers. By the time I finished, I was tired, in pain and barely able to enjoy everyone or even the holiday. It was rewarding to be able to cook for my family, but after nearly a decade, I was burnt out. We, as a family, needed to consider a change.
In recent years, my family opted to do a traditional Thanksgiving feast identical to the meal mom used to make, but Christmas eats are a toss-up. Ideas range from having a Pajama Rama Brunch, themed dinners and grazing boards, and even potluck style meals. Either way, Christmas eats have become a way for families to start new traditions.
Pajama Rama Brunch is just another excuse for the family to get together, get matching pajamas and take photos. I mean, no time like the present to start on next year’s celebration, and family photos in matching pajamas make good candidates for next year’s Christmas cards. I love a good brunch, and a good way to make Pajama Rama Brunch a huge success is to consider doing it potluck-style. Brunch is the perfect setting to consider casseroles, bakes, hashes, crock pot creations, sandwiches and even grazing boards.
Think, a cheesy bacon hash brown casserole, a cheesy biscuit sausage, eggs, sausage gravy casserole, and spinach, mushroom, meat or veggie quiches. Each of these provide opportunities to easily feed the masses. Next, consider sweet additions such as cinnamon rolls and French toast casseroles because brunch almost always includes a sweet and savory collaboration.
Slow cooker dishes are always an easy way to make dishes to feed the whole family. Where there is a potluck, there are slow cooker creations. A slow cooker can be used for anything, such as breakfast potatoes, casseroles, oats, rice, dips and offers a simple way to contribute to a family brunch.
Grazing boards offer up a way for hosts to share a lot of small bites to accompany any event. A Christmas grazing board could include biscuits, country ham, jellies, jams, apple butter, traditional Christmas fruit (that would traditionally be served via fruit bowl), donut bites, bagels cream cheese, Danish, bacon, sausage, vegetables, dips, breakfast pastries, chicken, waffles, deviled eggs and other appetizer additions. By using a grazing board, this makes for an easy stressless way to grab a bite while navigating through the celebration.
Christmas dinner can offer an opportunity for your family to relax, enjoy a decent meal and enjoy each other. In the last few years, my family partook in several alternate dinner options. The first was an Italian themed dinner with baked spaghetti, baked Alfredo, salad bar, garlic bread and a traditional dessert — jam cake. Next we tried a seafood boil that included snow crab legs, shrimp, andouille sausage, corn on the cob, mini potatoes, boiled eggs, garlic toast and dessert. For those who don’t like shellfish, I made fish or chicken with a sweet and spicy gochujang sauce, corn succotash, and Jollof rice. Both meals were a hit and quick and easy to execute, so I had more time to enjoy Christmas with my family.
This year, we are considering doing a whole bunch of small bites, but potluck-style. Everyone will bring in appetizer portion options to enjoy with each other. This could include cheesesteak sliders, barbecue lil’ smokies wrapped in baked dough, mini beef wellingtons, caprese bites, mini grilled cheese with tomato soup dipper, teriyaki meatballs, pizza bombs, parfaits, trifles, fruit kabobs, mini twice baked potatoes, stuffed mushrooms, mini veggie and dip cups, mini chicken and waffles, or so many other delectable tiny morsels.
The options are endless, and it creates a platform for the family to get full off of flavor. Some ideas that I have been considering with traditional flavors are mini dressing balls stuffed with turkey, turkey and gravy sliders, and honey ham and Swiss sliders. All of these would be served with tradition gravy and cranberry compote. By bringing some traditional flavors in with a new twist, I can still give my family that taste of home that we are so accustomed to during the holidays.
This season, consider what makes you happy. There is something magical about this time of year because we remember the year in review, are thankful for our many blessings, and looking on to hopefully, a better new year. Whether you stick to the traditional cuisine or add in some new traditions, remember to spend time celebrating each other, family, friends and loved ones. May you all have a delicious holiday.
Mini Peppermint Trifle
(recipe via www.livinglocurto.com)
2 cups cold heavy cream
¼ cup powdered sugar
1 teaspoon peppermint extract
1 angel food cake
12 candy canes
12 mini candy cane sticks
Peppermint Whipped Cream
Whip heavy cream, powdered sugar and peppermint extract together with a hand mixer until cream turns into heavy peaks. Add to a piping bag and chill or freeze until ready to assemble trifle.
Add candy canes to a plastic zipper bag, seal and crush them with a rolling pin. Slice angel food cake into 1/4 inch thick slices. Use the mini trifle cups to cut small circles out of the cake slices.
Layer the dessert by adding crushed candy canes to the bottom of the mini cup.
Next, add a layer of peppermint whipped cream, crushed candy canes, angel food cake and top with whipped cream.
Place a mini candy cane stick into each dessert. Add a mini Santa hat to the candy cane stick and sprinkle more crushed candy canes over the trifle before serving.
Keep chilled until ready to serve.