Christmas baking: vanilla shortbread

Tray of homemade shortbread  

I love cooking for my family and friends. Having people in our house and feeding them, nourishing them, gives me great joy. So it should come as no surprise that I love giving gifts of food too. Recently I’ve been giving out jars of our olives and small slabs of homemade quince paste but wanted to do something more Christmassy.

Shortbread with wooden knife to make star imprintI think homemade biscuits are a beautiful Christmas tradition and this year I decided to jettison my fear and attempt shortbread. 

Stack of homemade shortbread_edited-1    Stack of homemade shortbread side on

I don’t know why it scared me but it did – something about not overworking the dough. I always like a forgiving dough and shortbread seemed just a little too precious for my liking.

Trio of Christmas tree shortbreadsTurns out I had shortbread all wrong. It’s really not too tricky.

These turned out so well (although the next batch will leave the oven just 3 minutes earlier so they stay perfectly pale all over) and I decorated them very simply.

Trio of homemade shortbreadI popped some greaseproof paper inside paper bags  – to stop grease stains from the high butter content – and gave them out to our school crossing guards who do a wonderful job of glaring at speeding cars and generally keeping us safe as we brave a busy thoroughfare on our way to school each morning.

Bag of shortbread with holly stamp

What about you guys? Any favourite Christmas biscuits? Do you give homemade food as gifts?

Crumbly homemade shortbread

Well, that’s been a veritable flurry of pre-Christmas posts hasn’t it? I assure you I will return to my sporadic ways from now on. I always seem to get a Christmas ant in my pant right before Christmas about documenting all the good stuff.

I hope you and yours have the MOST wonderful Christmas or other festive celebration – be happy and safe and sound. I do truly wish you all love and light.

Christmas Traditions

One of the things I was most excited about when I was pregnant with Sophia, was the thought of future family traditions. And they come easy at Christmas.

You’ve met our elf on the shelf and these are some of the others.

1. Letters to Father Christmas.

In these shots (taken last December) Olive is dictating to her sisterly scribe.

Girls composing letters to Santa  Girls writing letters to Father Christmas

2. Advent Calendar

After last year’s debacle when my daily bespoke creations petered out around the 15th and the mere thought of coming up with new ideas made me cranky, this year I invested in a ready-made calendar. The girls are loving this Playmobil Santa’s Letter Depot set. We’re still waiting on the big-ticket items: the tree, reindeer and sleigh.

Playmobil Advent Calendar

3. Setting out the Christmas books.

Stack of Christmas books

Every year on December 1st we get and decorate our tree and put out the Christmas books. I try to add a couple to the pile each year. These are scenes from some of our favourites. I love coming back to these same books every year and re-reading them in the evenings with the kids.Christmas Book collage

4. Gingerbread House

We don’t do this every year as it is time-consuming. This year, in the interests of staying calm and festive, I bought a kit for this Christmas shack. And I’m loving it – for every reason. Especially as we have an Australian Bush Christmas kind of  theme in mind for the table this year.

Christmas gingerbread shack

5. Christmas pyjamas

Each Christmas Eve the girls get a special pair of matching Christmas pyjamas. They are not always overtly Christmassy (although this year’s with the cute red and white stripey bow have a hint) but just something to build the excitement. As if it needs building on Christmas Eve. We are usually at fever pitch by about Dec 21st.

Christmas pyjamas Sophia package

And I just had to show you this. This is the letter written by Sophia to Father Christmas last year. It’s all very expected until the P.S.  Last year a girl in Sophia’s class began bullying her and we spent much of last year trying to help her deal with that. Anyway, her request made me laugh and seems, in this mamma’s biased mind in any case, perfectly appropriate!

Letter to Father Christmas

Not exactly in keeping with the Christmas spirit, but it did make me laugh. When you’re 7, getting someone banished to FC’s naughty list is the equivalent of bringing in the regiments.

Even better though, she’s asked the big guy to make sure he doesn’t forget the ones who were her stalwart supporters. Now that’s the Christmas spirit.

Meet Jingle: our elf on the shelf

Elf on the Shelf collage

Jingle arrives in December (sometimes not quite on the 1st because he occasionally gets lost flying in) and watches the kids behaviour through December. He flies home to the North Pole every night to report to Father Christmas and back to us each dawn. So, yes, he is essentially a whistle-blowing behavioural motivation coach.

He likes to change positions every morning. Sometimes it can be tricky to find him. Turns out he’s partial to using the kids underpants as a flying fox. Should I be worried?

He’s a cheeky elf, our Jingle, and he would be even cheekier if the voice of reason (i.e.handsome husband) didn’t step in from time to time and point out the children may be traumatised rather than delighted if Jingle tapes himself to the the wall with gaffer tape hostage-style.

A quick search on “naughty elf on the shelf” on Pinterest is an edifying activity. I think he’ll only get naughtier as the girls get older.

Elf on the shelf snow flour angel

Whaddya think: cute Christmas tradition or creepy peeping tom tale-teller?

Mini Christmas Puddings: the cheats’ version

Choc royal puddings 2

These little babies are quick, kitsch and festive – a magical trifecta in my books.

You just use Chocolate Royal biscuits  – at least that’s what they’re called here in Australia. I feel sure everyone must have something similar, and if you don’t, perhaps contact your local political members to address that abuse of your basic human rights.

They are biscuit discs topped with jam then marshmallow and dipped in chocolate.

Choc Royal pudding close up

They remind me so strongly of my paternal Grandmother, Isabella, who ALWAYS had a plastic Tupperware container of Chocolate Royals in her neat-as-a-pin kitchen cupboard. They were such a treat and after we had chosen one she would carefully replace the lid, slowly squeezing the air out fastidiously, and tuck them away again. A soothing ritual, of which she had many.

Choc Roayl puddings

She would love these I think. Just drizzle some white chocolate over the top, pop on a Jaffa and some chopped up green jubes for leaves and Bob, as they say, will be your uncle.

The girls loved helping me with these (as you can well imagine) and it’s something kids can do almost entirely on their own  – perhaps just with help to melt the white choc if yours, as mine, are still just a mite short to reach the microwave.

And I have to tell ya, they’ve been the first thing to go at every function they’ve made an appearance at – both for kids and adults! And I may or may not have eaten 50 bajillion of them myself. Nostalgia is a powerful force.

A Christmas break of the unwelcome variety

So you know how I was flat-out being all zen about December and living in the moment etc., etc.? Well, this is one moment I would have been happy to live without.

Olive's cast

It was a bad break. Bloody monkey bars.

I said to the orthopaedic surgeon at the Emergency Department that I bet he wished he had a dollar for every kid that presented with a monkey-bar break.  He agreed it would be a tidy supplement to his income but that he would rather have a dollar for every kid that didn’t. Because they are in the majority.

And it’s easy to forget that when you are cradling your tiniest babe in your arms, trying to be brave when really you want to cry, and swearing neither of your kids will ever go within 10 metres of, let alone swing from, a set of monkey-bars ever again.

Mermaid on Olive's cast

They had to cut the sleeve off her little dress.  Of course it was the least of our worries but I felt just the tiniest pang of regret as both my girls have worn that dress and I bought it in Rome for Sophia before she was born. Well, at least it went out with a bang. Or a crack, in this case.

Olive in sling at hospital

The surgeon had to realign her radius and in order to do that he had to break her ulna.

And all this while conscious. Both the surgeon and Olive.

Okay, so she was high as a kite on ketamine and fentanyl (Olive, not the surgeon) but she still felt it. She just doesn’t remember it.

But her father and I will. Forever.

She has adapted remarkably to the heavy armpit-to-thumb cast and her sister, family and little friends, as you can see, have been decorating it in the cutest way ever.

Hugging friends on Olive's cast

And here she is managing a feeble thumbs 2 days later. Note other hand submerged in glass of God knows what.

Olive giving thumbs up in cast

So we have 6 long weeks of a cast which cannot meet a speck of water. In the hot Aussie summer. At the beach. Quite the challenge.

We are investigating any and all cast protector and waterproof cast options. All depends on her healing though.

Which if her maddening itching this week is anything to go by, is progressing at a rate of knots.

The surgeon also said that the way little bones reknit means the break might not even be evident in X-rays when she’s older. Incredible baby bones.

Love hearts on Olive's cast

I’m currently grateful (stay tuned) for the fact she hasn’t broken her other arm yet. This challenge seems to making her behave in an even more cavalier manner than usual. Not relaxing. But good on her.

As I go to publish this post, I have just re-read it and its light tone kind of belies the level of fear I actually felt as we went through this.  And even when my fear for my own child began to abate somewhat, the realities of the ward suddenly crowded in: the truly tiny babies who were rushed in and surrounded by 7 or 8 doctors and nurses and the haggard parents of those tiny babies.  The two little brothers with previous histories of anaphylaxis who were itching all over in building allergic reactions to something they had eaten and their worried mum. The little girl who was wheeled past on a trolley towards surgery with a head that had either been shaven for surgery or…well, I will never know and my thoughts can only ever be pure speculation. But my heart broke for her mum who walked beside her into whatever trial they faced.

I feel indescribably grateful to live in a country in which we have access to public health care of such an extraordinarily high standard and then above and beyond that a department manned with staff who are genuinely concerned and dispense compassion to EACH AND EVERY single sick kid (and their worried parents) that comes through their doors.

They were my Christmas miracle.

Christmases past

First living wreath

Every year I do it. Get over-excited. Plan too much. End up feeling a bit less jolly and a bit more postal.

Edge of fabric cracker

Not doing it this year.

Gingerbread house - front view

I do have a few things planned – I mean a girl can’t just go cold Christmas turkey now can she?

Christmas drinks invitations and Christmasy polar bear

But mainly I’m just trying to be present. In each moment. And yes, I know how trite that sounds but I am still committed to doing it because I think it is worthwhile.

Cream velvet bow on golden Christmas tree decoration

And my window of opportunity to have little girls looking at the Elf on the Shelf in wonder is swiftly closing.

Christmas Tea light, vintage bauble and shelf elf

In fact, the older one already maintains that she’s sure the elf comes from Ebay and not the North Pole.

Close-up of jingle bells on Olive's stocking

You have to believe to receive, I say. And that puts paid to her scepticism. Out loud, at least.

Cracker

In the meantime I’ve been looking back through some of my posts from past Christmases. I’m re-posting some of my favourite projects and hope they might give you some festive inspiration…or just provide a bit of xmas eye-candy at the very least.

Christmas Card - bunting

Click on the “Christmas ” in the righthand sidebar to see all these and many more Christmas posts. There aren’t really tutorials for most of these but if you want any details , drop me an email (on the contacts page above) and I’ll be very happy to oblige you with  a quick set of instructions.

Christmas candy cane lollipps

I love the wintery-ness of a Northern hemisphere Christmas. Which is completely at odds with the searing heat of antipodean celebrations.

Tolkien's Father Christmas Letters - Polar Bear's Accident

Don’t get me wrong, I relish everything about an Australian Christmas but I simply cannot help but emblazon things with snowflakes. Feels so wrong and yet I can’t stop.  Christmas crack.

Jube wreath close up with description

This cosy Christmas in July was a natural progression for one so taken with the thought of roaring fires and snow-trimmed windows.

Christmas table by candlelight

There’s a white Christmas in our near future. I feel it in me waters.

Starlight mint bauble with description

What about you, my darlings. Grand Christmas project plans? I love to live vicariously so let me know in the comments if you feel inclined. Oh go on, do.

Starlight mint LED lights

A glimpse into village life during a Balinese festival

The Balinese year (of 210 days) is rich with celebrations and ceremonies. Galungan is one of the most important of these and celebrates the victory of good over evil.

Gusti at temple gates

On the first day of Galungan, our friend, Gusti, took us to two local village temples to observe the ceremonies and rituals taking place.

Boys at the temple

It was utterly fascinating. I was worried we would be intruding but Gusti assured us we were not only not intruding but welcome. Such a beautiful, Balinese response.

Blessings at Sebali temple

We felt so very privileged to be able to see some of the blessings and rituals being performed and I was particularly thrilled to see this dukun at work.

Dukun (holy man) at Sebali temple

Dukun are holy men: spiritual healers, custodians of custom, tradition and ancestral knowledge, diviners, mediums and even sorcerers.

This is one of my favourite photos from our entire trip. My dad and Gusti : two fathers, two cultures, two friends.

Gusti and dad at the temple

Even the youngest members of the community participate in these rituals.

Kids getting blessings at the temple

That lifelong participation is, in part, what makes Bali such a cohesive society but also what feeds the almost tangible sense of spirituality on this island; a richness that seems to ripple in the atmosphere around you – unseen but palpable.

Leaving temple

Village streets are lined with penjor  – tapering bamboo poles adorned with elaborate palm leaf decorations –  and specially constructed bamboo altars.

Whole penjor

Just like the ubiquitous palm-leaf trays of offerings, each penjor is a work of art. And a much faster thing to put together since the arrival on Bali of the stapler! Before staples, each elaborate twist and turn of decoration was secured with little bamboo tooth picks. We were told that there is good-natured competition to prepare the most beautiful penjor although it turns out you can go too far. One penjor on the road to our villa was lit up with electric Christmas lights. According to Gusti that one “didn’t count”.

Penjors and offerings Sebali bud

This is Gusti’s gorgeous wife Narie, his two beautiful boys and his dad holding an offering they were taking to their family rice field.

Narie, Gusti's dad and the boys on motorbike_edited-1

That evening we sat on the edge of the street in our village (yes, I adopted it wholesale) and waited for the Barong (a lion-like creature from Balinese mythology) to come past.

There were no cars on the road and only the odd scooter every 15 minutes or so. So in between those  rare modern intrusions it was easy to pretend we had been transported back in time to a Bali of 100 years ago. All along the little street, in front of their houses, women and kids were dressed in their beautiful holiday finest awaiting the arrival of the Barong with the men of the village. As they waited they prepared offerings, lit incense, chatted.

Sate lilit offering

Occasionally the women sitting across the road from us would nod to us and smile gently.

Entering the Sebali temple

Then from the dim dark came the distant sound of drums and bells and laughter and slowly the village Barong snaked its way along the street in front of us.  it was gone almost in the blink of an eye but that half hour will stay with me forever.

I couldn’t get a decent shot in the darkness but I do want to show you how fearsome the Barong are. I found this beautiful photo on Flickr. Attribution below it.

Barong by Hoks on Flickr

(Above photo only: Balinese Barong Dancer by Hoks. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

I took the next photo blind, i.e. literally just snapped it into the dark to see if I could capture any of the magic of the moment not only without the harsh effect from the burst of a flash but also so as not to intrude into the simple acts of devotion these women were making.

The resulting shot kind of made me draw breath. I know darkness and a long exposure makes for blur and distortion but  this has an especially other-wordly feel. Maybe blur accounts of much of it but there certainly seem to be more figures here than there were women. And so I keep coming back to the fact that Galungan is also when ancestral spirits return to earth.

For me, that evening was one of those moments that sinks deeply into your soul and reminds you, no matter what your fears, to keep travelling…keep striving for the moments.

Galungan women Sebali 1