holiday baking

THE CHRISTMAS TREE CHOP, SANTA LUCIA, AND LITTLE DREAMS

 
Christmas Tree Chop Tiny Tree by Samantha Spigos

The tiniest tree we’ve had yet. Technically only part of a tree; a glorified branch, really. We found it among the lowly pile of “tree tops” relegated to the fence at the Christmas tree farm. So dainty, this tree, that Mark and I were able to forgo the tree wrapping and tie it to the top of my station wagon with ease. This was our fifth year to caravan out yonder for the Christmas Tree Chop, and the first year that no one actually chopped a tree. It was more of a wintry walkabout with hot cocoa and sledding. Turns out none of us could afford to chop a tree, and all the better. As grandma would’ve said, we are clear tickled with our tree.

If my absence here has been any indication, I’ve been finding it hard to share much publicly this year. Mark and I are still so fresh to parenthood. We opt not to share much about our daughter on the Internet, even if we would love for you to enjoy her gap teeth and scrunch face. As for everything else we pen about, we are in a very slow season. I don’t mean winter, though it has been plenty restful. I mean life. There is just . . . not much happening. I suspect it is not for naught. There are things that need tending in our relationship and hearts, and they must be mundane, silent things. (Ugh.) I trust God knows this better than we. Better put, I am trying to trust. We had grown accustomed to major change around every bend, our joint life seeming to always gain momentum. Then Autumn hit, and life slowed. Stalled, almost. We thought we were buying a farm, and when that did not come to pass, we resumed life as usual. The Big Dreams went to hunker down for a nice, long hibernation. Daily life was replaced with Little Dreams like baking cake again, like playing basketball again, like going to the Christmas tree farm again.

Christmas Tree Chop Sledding Family by Samantha Spigos
Christmas Tree Chop Family by Samantha Spigos
Christmas Tree Chop Rosemary Child by Samantha Spigos
Christmas Tree Chop Kids Sledding by Samantha Spigos
Christmas Tree Chop Festive Kids Sledding by Samantha Spigos

And then there is Nicholas. Guadalupe. Lucia. The feast days of December that punctuate the end of the year and bring greater meaning to Advent. We celebrate these saints and Our Lady as a family, joining the multitudes around the world who do the same. During an otherwise anticipatory season, these small celebrations are grounding, acting as a sweet reminder to take proper notice of the day at hand. Who came before us? What did it mean for the world? In a special way, I love Saint Lucia. She was an Italian girl who brought light and hope to Sweden, and now brings light and hope to me. We baked the traditional recipe associated with her feast day — lussekatter, or saffron buns — in all manner of traditional shapes: the lyre, the Christmas pig and horse, the golden wagon, the little baby, the hair of the priest (every kid’s favorite around here). Meanwhile, my mom sat on the floor and read aloud a story about her. There is something quite beautiful in watching a child at work in the kitchen. . . that is, if you can look past the constant sneaking of bites and patting down of perfectly risen dough. And really we ought to, because children teach us so much about how to appreciate Little Dreams, especially when you give them their own handful of dough.

Santa Lucia Day Baking Lussekater Lucy Buns by Samantha Spigos
Saint Lucia Day Lussekater Lucy Buns by Samantha Spigos
Santa Lucia Day Peg Dolls Saint Lucy Bernadette by Samantha Spigos
saint lucia day lussekater lucy buns by samantha spigos
saint lucia day lussekater family generations by samantha spigos
Saint Lucia lussekater lucy cats baking by Samantha Spigos

For the inquisitive . . .

+ Lucia and Bernadette saint peg dolls.
+ We use the lussekatter recipe from this favorite book.
+ The pink pointy ear flap hat pictured above is a spectacular free knitting pattern.
+ Christmas Tree Chops of yore: 2017, 2016, 2015.
+ Last year’s Santa Lucia Day.


—S

CELEBRATING SAINT LUCIA | LUSSEKATTER

 
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Removing the tea towel to find the bowl of smooth, risen dough, not without little bits plucked and nibbled by hands that Just Couldn't Help Themselves. Those same little hands doing the good work of shaping dough. Tactile, deliberate, imperfect. Rolling, stretching, creating shapes that weren't there before. The lyre, the baby, the Christmas horse, the priest's hair — shapes that recall a tradition that long preceded us. Under the tea towel once more, allowing the buns to rise; impatiently waiting. Cuddle and read stories by the light of the tree. Oven hot, egg wash the buns. In they go. 8 minutes, maybe 9. Let them cool until the little hands cannot bear it any longer. Pull apart, savor the scent of saffron, share and eat with abandon. Smile at the magic of it all. Lucia, patron saint of light, a life worthy of celebration and a recipe befitting of her giving spirit. Lussekatter. An Advent tradition we will abide for as many years as there are hands to shape dough. 
—An Advent journal entry of sorts, regarding December 13th, the feast day of Saint Lucia. 

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—S

O CHRISTMAS TREE | PINE NEEDLE + ROSEMARY SHORTBREAD

 

Ah, December—how we missed thee. 'Tis the season—a very special season—for, oh, so many reasons. When we walked into the barn and turned the calendar page to December 1st, we were greeted by the following tidbit: "the beginning of winter." Although that is not quite true, technically speaking, it sure feels like it. We have had our first snow; the fire in our wood stove burns on perpetual; and, yes, Christmas is nigh! In our family, this is cause for celebration—true, full-hearted and full-bellied celebration—all month long. Believe it or not, winter is our favorite season (as it well should be, given our Northern locale); and Christmas, perhaps more believably, is our favorite holiday.

As such, we needed to get a few things straight around here. First, we set "A Charlie Brown Christmas" a'spinning. Next, we had to get our Charlie Brown Christmas Tree. We trekked over a river and through the woods, past the furthest pastures on the farm. With our trusty bow saw in tow, we searched and searched for the wimpiest pine we could find. We found it, thanked it for all of the joy it would bring into our home and for all that it had provided in the forest, and cut it down. We hauled it back through the woods, back over the river, and up the farm road to our home; and when we got there, we found that our wimpy Charlie Brown Christmas tree was still too big for our space. We trimmed it's leggy limbs until it fit just right, snuggled between our two couches. But what to do with all of those fresh, fragrant pine branches on our cutting floor? Well, 'tis the season, indeed: and if a Christmas tree was our first priority, then Christmas cookies were next in line.

Seasonal adventures call for an adventurous seasonal recipe—and was this ever. The first step was to triple check that the Eastern Hemlock tree that we cut down was not the same poisonous hemlock used to carry out Socrates' death sentence way back when in ancient Greece. It isn't. Whew. From there, our task was a bit less daunting, but no less important: figure out a way to incorporate pine needles into cookies that doesn't feel like you're just eating pine needles. Thankfully, my favorite kitchen tools—the mortar & pestle—were up to the task when the food processor was not. Our (mis)adventures continued: we melted the butter when we meant to soften it, and we froze the dough solid when we'd only meant to firm it up before slicing it into cookie-rounds. Nevertheless, these shortbread cookies—baked in the dappled light of the setting December sun (which, in Vermont, means shortly after lunch)—somehow turned out just as we'd hoped. Mildly sweet and butter smooth with a flavor befitting of the season. O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree, How lovely are thy branches . . .


PINE NEEDLE SHORTBREAD
makes roughly two dozen cookies

STEPS
— preheat oven to 350
— strip pine needles and rosemary off branches
 — combine pine, rosemary, and sugar in mortar + crush with pestle until needles are fine
— in a large bowl, with a wooden spoon combine pine sugar mixture with butter, salt, and lemon
— slowly add flour to mixture, gently combining with your hands until a buttery dough ball forms
— divide dough in half and roll each into a log shape, then wrap with parchment paper and freeze for 15 minutes to firm up dough
— cut dough into small 1/2 inch thick rounds, and place 1 inch apart on a cookie sheet covered in parchment paper
— bake for 10 minutes, or until bottoms of shortbread are just barely golden
— let cool for 10 minutes before eating (if you're more patient than we were)

INGREDIENTS
1/4 c. pine needles (any edible variety; we used hemlock)
1/4 c. fresh rosemary
2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
2 c. all-purpose flour
1/3 c. white sugar
2 tsp. lemon zest
pinch of salt
 


—M

MANY HANDS WORKING DOUGH | COOKIE DAY

 
cutting out cookies
candy cane cookies
cutting out cookies
mark carrying cookies
kids working dough

Cookie Day has happened every year since 1996. For 19 years, one day in December has been devoted to baking and decorating sugar cookies en masse. You know, the "16 sticks of butter before icing" kind of baking. This is an all hands on deck approach to holiday baking that my mom and her lifelong best friend, Cindy, established (pictured together below). However small or inexperienced, however icing-liberal or artistically un-inclined, any & all are invited to join together in intention and craft.

Let me be clear about one thing: there are no hard-and-fast rules when it comes to decorating these cookies. For nearly two decades, we've been transforming Santa into octopi, ghosts, and the yellow submarine. Gingerbread men become Swedish yodelers, Winnie the Pooh, ninja turtles and the Mona Lisa. The joy of this day has nothing to do with creating picturesque desserts and everything to do with celebrating togetherness, celebrating hundreds of cookies warm out of the oven, and celebrating the genuine spirit of Christmas. Four Cookie Day's ago, I showed Mark how to properly hold a piping bag. Now he shows the little ones, who in a few years will show their friends. 

In this Advent season of anticipation, we aim for happiness, gratitude, and wonder. 
Thanks be to Tradition, a slow & beautiful maiden.

jane and hazel frosting cookies
mama aimee
a table full of dough
frances tasting frosting
fran and cindy
frosted cookies

—S