Simplify the Holidays by Managing Expectations

Stockings hung at the chimney

Photo: Jeff Turner

One of the first steps to simplifying the holidays is rethinking our expectations. Some of the things I’ve done over the years were borne of my own perfectionist tendencies, and others reflect old habits I’ve repeated over and over.

See if you can relate to any of these statements about the holidays:

Gifts

1. I need to give a holiday present to anyone who gives me a gift.
2. To avoid embarrassment, I should even keep some spare, pre-wrapped presents on hand for surprise gifters. It would be nice to arrange these gifts in a vintage, hand-carved wooden bowl on a small table by the front door.
3. My gifts should be equal in price and scope to any gifts I receive.
4. Our family’s gifts should be wrapped in pretty paper, adorned with bows, and finished with matching gift tags. If possible, they should have a coordinated look under the Christmas tree. If they match the tree skirt, all the better.
5. I should wrap, pack and ship presents for all of our immediate family.

The Christmas Tree

1. The tree should be fresh and perfect, with no scraggly branches or bald spots.
2. The lights should be strung evenly and fill the entire tree.
3. We must hang every single ornament we own on the tree, and they should be evenly spaced.
4. The smaller ornaments should go near the top, and the larger ornaments should go near the bottom.

Interior Decorations

1. The bathroom towels should be replaced with Christmas towels. Never mind that the red towels leave a faint pink cast on everyone’s hands.
2. Each bathroom should have a special holiday decoration on the counter, and Christmas-themed soap dispensers.
3. The throw pillows should be replaced with festive holiday pillows.
4. The stair railing should be trimmed with pine boughs (preferable fresh-cut) and little white lights.
5. We must put out every single holiday decoration we own, from the Christmas salt-and-pepper shakers to the entire Snow Village.
6. A second Christmas tree — say a kitchen-themed tree hung with cute holiday cookie cutters — is a nice touch.

Exterior DecorationsHappy Clark Griswold

1. The front door mat should be replaced with a special Christmas-themed door mat.
2. A wreath of pretty greens — perhaps some that I gathered in the woods and attached decoratively to a wire frame — should hang on the door and look fresh throughout the holidays. It would be especially nice if I decorated it with an assortment of seasonal fruits, nuts and pinecones.
3. Our exterior lights should be hung evenly, nicely accenting our home’s distinctive architectural details. No unsightly extension cords should be visible. Our display should be about the same scope as the others in the neighborhood — or perhaps a little better.
4. It’s a nice touch to decorate the mailbox for the holidays.
5. We should enlist the children to make special hanging holiday treats for the birds from pinecones, peanut butter and sunflower seeds.

Holiday Food

1. We should bake an assortment of cookies to keep on hand. These should be baked from scratch, rolled out and cut with an assortment of festive cutters that we have collected for generations, and decorated with frosting that somehow manages to be both sturdy and tasty.
2. We should cook special homemade goodies — preferably arranged in festive plates and wrapped in cellophane tied with red-and-white-striped kitchen string — to give the neighbors, mailman, our children’s teachers, and often-overlooked helpers like our manicurist and insurance agent.
3. I should cook a special Christmas breakfast that is comforting, nourishing and memorable. If it includes a holiday-theme — say a pan of homemade cinnamon rolls baked in the shape of a Christmas tree and decorated with red and green candied cherries — all the better.
4. Our holiday dinner should be impressive and feature a selection of our family’s most treasured recipes. Ideally, this should be prepared from local, organic, sustainably raised foods.

Miscellaneous

1. As a family, we really should have cute matching holiday pajamas. And slippers.
2. The pets need holiday outfits, and they should each have their own needlepoint stockings — personalized with their names, of course.

How about you? We’ll be bombarded with retail messages in the weeks to come, urging us to do more and buy more for the holidays this year. But what if we do a little less this year, and spend the extra time enjoying our families and friends — or putting our feet up?

Is there a task you could let go of this holiday season? Leave a comment below about something you’d like to do differently. I always love hearing your thoughts and experiences.

Here’s to simplifying, letting go of perfectionism in favor of the things that really matter, and being All Done By December One,

The signature for Eliza Cross

About Eliza Cross

Eliza Cross is a full-time writer and the author of seven books about food and home design. She has been blogging about simplicity and sustainable living since 2006.

Plan Ahead for a Happier Holiday Season

Maddie the Christmas dog at Happy Simple Living blog

Our dog, Maddie, is a good sport about dressing up like Santa

October 10? Wait a minute. I’m just getting used to the idea of September being over — how did it get to be October 10th? The weeks pass quickly sometimes, and if it’s already October 10th that means November will be here before we know it. I suppose next you’re going to tell me that December will arrive just as quickly! A quick look at the calendar tells me that Christmas is about eleven weeks away.

A couple years ago I read about a woman who’d had to get everything done for Christmas by December first because her foreign in-laws were coming to stay for a month. The sweet surprise of the early deadline was that, for the first time in memory, she really, really enjoyed the holiday season. With all the shopping and wrapping and decorating done, she was free to enjoy the festivities and partake in the fun and true meaning of the season with her family and friends.

Oh, how this resonated with me — me who has been known to shop for a Barbie Glam Shower Set (that’s right) at 5 p.m. on Christmas Eve, me who has hemmed my daughter’s velvet Christmas dress at 5:30 a.m. on Christmas morning, me who once mailed combination Christmas/Valentine’s Day cards. What would it take, I wondered, to get everything done early and actually be present during the month of December?

All Done By December One

"Are we going to an Ugly Sweater party?"

“Are we going to an Ugly Sweater party?”

Two years ago, I started an initiative called “All Done By December One.” Many of you participated with me in 2012 and 2013 as we collectively simplified, agreed to do less, let go of perfectionism, and tackled the remaining holiday tasks earlier.

Would you like to do this again with me?

If we start now and do a little bit each day, we can be less frazzled and more present during the holiday season this year. Let’s also be mindful of spending and agree not take on one single dollar of holiday debt. Okay?

If you’re a technology geek like me, you might enjoy downloading a free app called “Lift.”  To let it help you get everything done by December 1, you simply check in every day that you spend at least 10 minutes on holiday tasks. You’ll get a big, green checkmark, kudos from other users, and nice words of affirmation from Lift when you complete the task for multiple consecutive days. It’s surprisingly motivating! You can find our group here:  https://www.lift.do/plans/173111-10-minutes-doing-holiday-related-tasks. Or when you’re setting your goals, just enter “10 minutes doing holiday” in the search box and you’ll find it. But you definitely don’t need to use the app to participate.

I’ll share some of my own experiences and ideas about getting organized for the holidays in the days to come, and I hope you’ll comment and leave your thoughts and suggestions, too. If you’re “in,” and you’d like to be All Done By December One, you can affirm your participation by leaving a comment below.

Hugs and enjoy the weekend,

The signature for Eliza Cross

About Eliza Cross

Eliza Cross is a full-time writer and the author of seven books about food and home design. She has been blogging about simplicity and sustainable living since 2006.

Win a Signed Copy of 101 Things To Do With a Pickle

101 Things To Do With a Pickle cookbook by Eliza Cross

My newest cookbook has just been released by Gibbs Smith, and it’s all about things to do with crispy, crunchy pickles. You probably figured that out from looking at the cute cover.

 

Pickling cucumbers

Photo: Chiot’s Run

If you’re harvesting the last of your pickling cucumbers, you’ll find a whole chapter of recipes for homemade pickles, from easy Icebox Dill Pickle Spears to Grandma’s 7-Day Pickles.

Pickle Pastrami Roll-Ups

Pickle Pastrami Roll-Ups – recipe coming soon!

You’ll also find appetizers like Batter-Fried Pickle Spears and Pickle Pastrami Roll-Ups, and salads like Old-Fashioned Potato Salad and Danish Cobb Salad.

The Dinners chapter features easy recipes like Slow Cooker Pickle Pork and Creamy Dill Pickle Chicken. You’ll find offbeat recipes like Dill Pickle Soup and Neon State Fair Pickles, too.

You might not think of sweet pickles as a dessert ingredient, but you’ll be surprised at how delicious they taste in Pickle Cupcakes with Lemon-Cream Cheese Frosting and Sweet Pickle Ice Cream (especially favored by pregnant women). I’m not kidding!

If you’d like to win a signed copy of 101 Things To Do With a Pickle for yourself or your favorite pickle-lover, just leave a comment below and answer this question:

What type of pickles do you like best?

The Real Dill pickles

The Real Dill artisan pickles

Do you like your pickles sour or sweet? Are you a fan of garlicky Kosher pickle spears, or do you favor dill pickle slices? Do you like old-fashioned Bread and Butter Pickles, sweet gherkins, or do you prefer tiny French cornichons? Just shout out your answer before midnight MST on Monday, October 13 and you’ll be automatically entered.

Also, if you’ll be in Denver on Friday, October 24, I’d love to meet you at the official launch party for the book. It’ll be held at Biker Jim’s Gourmet Dogs (home of Denver’s best fried pickles!) at 2148 Larimer Street from 5:30 to 7:00 p.m. with free fried pickles for all, an artisan pickle tasting from The Real Dill, pickle shots, pickle dogs, discounted drinks and more. I’d love to see you there!

Hugs,

The signature for Eliza Cross

About Eliza Cross

Eliza Cross is a full-time writer and the author of seven books about food and home design. She has been blogging about simplicity and sustainable living since 2006.

Iced Coffee Recipe for Autumn

Iced coffee recipe from Happy Simple Living

 

I realize that many people consider iced coffee a summer drink, but to me it always seems a little robust on a blazing hot day. On the other hand, when the light shifts and the temperatures drop a bit, autumn feels like the perfect time to enjoy a cool, creamy java. What do you think? Care to join me for a glass?

If you remember to make extra coffee in the morning, you can refrigerate it for iced coffee. This requires planning ahead, though, which isn’t always my strong suit. If you want to enjoy iced coffee whenever you like, you can instead make a cold-brewed concentrate. I learned this technique from The Pioneer Woman’s blog, and it couldn’t be easier. I start with a 1-quart recycled glass bottle to make the strong brew, but you can use any size container you like and just adjust the quantities.

To begin, add 1/2 cup of finely-ground organic coffee to the bottle. You can use caffeinated or decaf coffee.

 

Add coffee to the bottle

 

Then add about 3 1/2 cups of cold, filtered water and give it a good shake. Let it steep in the refrigerator for a few hours, or overnight.

 

Making iced coffee concentrate

 

The next day, strain out the larger coffee grounds in a fine-mesh strainer:

 

Strain out the coffee grounds

 

Then put a coffee filter inside the strainer…

 

Preparing the filter for iced coffee

 

and strain the coffee mixture once again. This makes the concentrate nice and clear.

 

Strain the coffee through a filter

 

Wash out the bottle, and pour the strained coffee back in. You can store the cold coffee in the refrigerator for two to three weeks.

 

Making iced coffee concentrate

 

To make a perfect iced coffee, fill a glass with ice cubes and pour some of the strong coffee over it. You can drink it just like that if you’re a purist, or add milk and your favorite sweetener (I’m currently partial to organic coconut palm sugar) if you like. Or you can be extra-decadent and stir in a generous spoonful of sweetened condensed milk and top it off with half and half. It’s so, so good…

 

Iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk

 

How about you? Do you enjoy iced coffee, and if so, have you tried making your own? Is it still balmy in your part of the world, or is winter moving in? I always love hearing your thoughts and comments.

Hugs,

The signature for Eliza Cross

About Eliza Cross

Eliza Cross is a full-time writer and the author of seven books about food and home design. She has been blogging about simplicity and sustainable living since 2006.

Batter Fried Pickle Recipe

Fried pickle recipe

 

Fried pickles make some folks weak in the knees, me included. When I began writing 101 Things To Do With a Pickle, the top question people asked was, “Are you going to include a recipe for fried pickles?” Is a cucumber green?! The book, in fact, features three different fried pickle variations to satisfy crispy-fried cuke lovers everywhere.

This version features pickle spears dipped in a light, garlicky batter and quickly fried to preserve the crispy crunch of the pickles inside, served with a spicy ranch dip. Would you like to make a batch? The recipe’s super easy:

Batter-fried Pickle Spears

You’ll need a 24-ounce jar of your favorite pickle spears, and you can use homemade, refrigerated, off-the-shelf, or whatever pickle spears you like. The first step is to cut the pickles in the shape you desire. I cut these pickle spears in half horizontally. After you’ve cut them, arrange them on a cotton dishtowel or paper towels and let them drain. Refrigerate them for several hours until the cut edges are dry. Be sure to reserve 2 tablespoons of pickle juice from the jar, which you’ll use later for the batter.

 

Fried pickle recipe drain pickles

 

If you like, you can also do nice long pickle spears. In that case, cut each spear in half lengthwise:

Pickle spears.

 

Next, gather the batter ingredients. (Do I usually arrange everything neatly like this when I cook? No!) You’ll need 1 1/2 cups flour, 1 teaspoon garlic powder, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon paprika, 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, 3/4 cup club soda, 1 tablespoon melted butter, 2 eggs, and the 2 tablespoons of pickle juice you saved earlier. (The complete recipe is posted at the bottom of this page.)

Ingredients for fried pickles

 

After whisking the flour, garlic powder, salt, paprika and pepper together, add the egg yolks, melted butter, pickle juice and club soda. (I forgot to beat the egg yolks before adding them, but it doesn’t really matter.)

Making homemade fried pickles

 

As you stir this thick, weird batter, you may find yourself shaking your head with disbelief that this concoction could possibly yield a tender fried pickle batter. Keep the faith, and stir the ingredients just until blended. Try not to over-mix the batter.

Batter for fried pickles

 

Ideally you want a super-sticky, fairly thick batter to adhere to the pickles, that still manages to be light and crisp. This is no easy feat, but two beaten egg whites will help lighten the sticky batter considerably. If you have a whisk attachment on your electric mixer, use it now. If not, just use the regular beaters and whip the egg whites until they are stiff.

Egg whites lighten fried pickle batter.

 

Gently scoop the egg whites on the batter.

Beaten egg whites with fried pickle batter.

 

Now, gently…gently… fold them in, while keeping as much air in the egg whites as you can. Just go easy and take your time…

Fold egg whites in batter.

 

…and pretty soon the batter it won’t look quite so gnarly. Stop folding when the egg whites are mostly incorporated. It doesn’t have to be perfect.

Batter for fried pickles.

 

In a heavy saucepan, pour in cooking oil to a depth of 3 inches. I like peanut oil for frying, but you can use regular vegetable oil or canola oil. Heat the oil to a temperature of 365 degrees. (If you get the oil temperature just right, the pickles will fry up light and crispy without absorbing much oil.) Dip a pickle in the batter, coating evenly and letting the excess drip off.

Dip pickles in the batter.

 

Gently slide the pickle in the hot oil.

Frying pickles.

 

When the bottom is nice and brown, turn it with a slotted spoon and cook the other side. These pickles took about 2 minutes to cook, but yours may take more or less time depending on the size and thickness. I usually fry about three pickles at a time, to avoid crowding and keep the oil nice and hot. I thought this photo looked a little like a funny face!

Frying pickles

 

When the pickles are nicely browned, drain them on paper towels. If you’re cooking a big batch, you can put them in the oven set on “warm” and hold them for a bit.

Drain fried pickles after frying.

 

If you fry long pickle spears, they’ll look like this:

Fried pickle spears

 

Here’s how they look on the inside:

Fried pickles

 

You can serve the fried pickles with ranch dressing, or you can make a zippy version by mixing 1/3 cup ranch dressing with 1 to 2 teaspoons hot pepper sauce like Frank’s Hot Sauce.

Fried pickles

 

I hope you “relish” this Southern treat, and here’s the recipe for you in standard form:

BATTER-FRIED PICKLE SPEARS WITH SPICY RANCH

  • 1/3 cup ranch dressing
  • 1 to 2 teaspoons hot pepper sauce
  • 1 (24-ounce) jar dill pickle spears
  • 1 1/2 cups flour
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon paprika
  • 1/4 teaspoon pepper
  • 3/4 cup club soda
  • 1 tablespoon melted butter
  • 2 eggs
  • vegetable oil for frying

In a small bowl, combine the ranch dressing and hot pepper sauce to taste; cover and refrigerate. Drain pickles, reserving 2 tablespoons pickle juice. Cut each pickle spear in half and blot with paper towels; cover and refrigerate.

Whisk together the flour, garlic powder, salt, pepper and paprika in a medium bowl. Separate the eggs and beat the egg yolks. (Reserve and refrigerate the egg whites.) Add the egg yolks, club soda, butter and reserved pickle juice, and stir until combined. In a medium bowl, beat the egg whites until stiff; fold into the batter mixture.

Pour oil to a depth of 3 inches in a large heavy saucepan or Dutch oven and heat to 365 degrees. Dip pickles into batter, letting excess drip off, and fry in batches for 2 to 3 minutes, turning once, until golden brown. Drain on paper towels and serve with spicy ranch sauce. Makes 6 servings.

101-Things-To-Do-With-PickleI hope you’ll stop back next week, when I’ll be giving away a signed copy of 101 Things To Do With a Pickle.

In the mean time, have a dilly of a weekend!

The signature for Eliza Cross

About Eliza Cross

Eliza Cross is a full-time writer and the author of seven books about food and home design. She has been blogging about simplicity and sustainable living since 2006.

A Gratitude Journal Exercise You Might Enjoy

Blue Jay

Photo by Kathy

The ancient Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu wrote:

“Be content with what you have;

rejoice in the way things are.

When you realize there is nothing lacking

the whole world belongs to you.”

Gratitude journal at Happy Simple Living blog
A few years ago, I started writing in a gratitude journal. In the beginning, I tried to write five things each morning for which I was grateful. The practice encouraged me to look back on the past 24 hours and recall all the good aspects of the day, and I also discovered I was more aware of special moments and simple blessings as they occurred. I soon filled the little book, and began another. Now I keep the journal by the chair where I sit each morning to drink my coffee, pray and meditate, and I write it in often.

Too easily, I can slip into being critical and focusing on things that aren’t happening according to my expectations. What I’ve learned is that if I instead try to see my life through the eyes of a grateful heart, I’m more accepting and content.

This week, for some reason I’ve been especially aware of the sweet sounds around me. On Tuesday morning I wrote:

“I am grateful for the sounds that add so much richness to our world. While I was waking up this morning I heard a distant train, which always reminds me of our dad. A brief rain shower moved through at 5:30, with just the softest drum of raindrops on the roof. Just outside the living room window right now, crickets are calling a soothing refrain.”

Today I’m sitting at the kitchen table writing this post, and two gangs of birds have just started some sort of skirmish in the neighbor’s maple trees. With my heightened awareness of sounds this week, I have to pause and take in the drama. The magpies appear to be moving in on the bluejays’ turf, but I’m not sure. It’s a noisy, glorious commotion, and I am glad we have so many beautiful birds in our trees—both the small, quiet ones and the big, squawky ones.

How about you? Do you write in a gratitude journal? If so, perhaps you’d like to join me in focusing on sounds this week. Or would you like to start a practice of writing thankful thoughts? Maybe you have your own way of finding contentment in the sweet, simple moments of daily life. As always, I’d love to hear your comments.

Poet Kahil Gibran wrote:

“Wake at dawn with winged heart and

give thanks for another day of loving.”

 

May you find grace and wonder in your daily journey,

The signature for Eliza Cross

About Eliza Cross

Eliza Cross is a full-time writer and the author of seven books about food and home design. She has been blogging about simplicity and sustainable living since 2006.