Holiday card tips

Let’s face it; sending holiday cards is fun in theory, but actually doing the work can be exhausting and stressful, especially in the US, where we have a shorter Christmas season. By the time the Thanksgiving dishes are done, we’re already running out of time to get it all completed by Christmas Eve. And that kind of holiday stress just isn’t any fun at all.

However, I still adore sending Christmas cards. So I figured out a way to do it without much stress at all. The key: start early! Since sticking to this timeline, the task isn’t stressful; in fact, it’s rather fun. And being one of the first things I do for my favorite season of the year, they never fail to get me excited for what’s to come!

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Late September: take your photos

Nowadays, it’s easier than ever to take and edit your own photos, if you so choose. Whether you hire it out or shoot them yourself, just remember to allow enough time to do any necessary edits in post-production.

  • TIP: A great option is a mini session with a professional photographer, in which they dedicate an entire chunk of time to shoot multiple shorter sessions at a staged location for a smaller price tag. Some are in apple orchards or tree farms, others are in studios with beautifully wrapped packages and Santa costumes. If you decide to go this route, start looking in the summer, as many of these highly coveted sessions sell out before fall even starts.

Early October: design your card

I use Tiny Prints (now owned and operated by Shutterfly). Other options are Minted, VistaPrint, even PicMonkey has cards nowadays. Each of these companies offers literally hundreds of design options and price points. Designing can take me awhile, as I have to shop every possible option and play with placement like the designer I am. I give myself a couple weeks to get this part done.

  • TIP:  There is no rule in which you have to get all of only one type of card. If you love more than one design, order more than one! We typically order at least two options: a traditional card for family members and coworkers, and a more whimsical card for close friends.

Mid-October: place your card order

By ordering early, you’re ahead of the rush, so your order usually shows up quickly. This year, I placed my order on Monday, and they were delivered to me by the following Friday. And I didn’t pay any extra for faster shipping. My goal is always to have my cards, envelopes, and postage in my hands no later than October 31st.

  • TIP: Online printing companies always – ALWAYS – have sales and promotional offers running. Sometimes, it’s as simple as adding your email to their email list, but it’s super easy to get a percentage off your order. Bottom line: never pay full price. If there isn’t a sale now, there will be another soon. Pay attention!
  • TIP: Pay a little extra to have the company print your return address on the envelopes. The cost isn’t very high, and it’s definitely worth the extra sanity and hand cramps later.
  • TIP: Consider splurging on the custom photo stamps. We always do this for two reasons. A) People LOVE it! It’s the thing we get the most feedback on, and it’s so easy! And B) No having to remember to get postage at the grocery store or standing in line at the post office. This way, my stamps are shipped directly to me. DONE.

The first three weeks of November: stuff, stamp, and address your cards

By breaking up this time-consuming task over several weeks, it never seems too daunting. This year, we’ll send a total of 80 cards, but I will only stuff, stamp, and address 5-6 cards each night, giving myself a break over the weekends. That small handful takes me fifteen minutes a day, tops, which I usually do while I’m relaxing after dinner anyway. It barely feels like a to-do list item at all.

The day before Thanksgiving: send out all your holiday cards in the outgoing mail

This timing means your cards will arrive to most of your recipients on the first day or two of the Christmas season. Not only will they be a pleasant holiday surprise to your loved ones, but YOU’RE DONE! You haven’t even served the Thanksgiving turkey yet, and your Christmas cards are completely finished. It’s a great way to kick off the season ahead of the curve!

Now, if only I was any good at hand lettering…

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My holiday binder

 

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It shouldn’t come as a surprise that I adore the autumn/Thanksgiving/Christmas season. After Labor Day, I kick into high gear, keen on squeezing every last moment of seasonal fun out of the next four months. If I’m not careful, this fervor can easily turn into overwhelming burnout by New Year’s Eve. How do I manage it? My trusty Holiday Binder.

The idea came to me through the many organized homemakers on YouTube. Every homemaker’s Holiday Binder looks different, organized specifically for the person using it. Some of the things inside mine are:

  • An at-a-glance calendar of all four months, with annual events I want to attend and deadlines I can’t forget, like when to order Christmas cards.
  • Tips and notes about what did and did not work in years past. Reminders of what not to forget, and warnings about the things that failed gloriously.
  • Favorite recipes, tried and true menus, and their respective ingredient shopping lists. These have saved my hostess/cook butt on more than one occasion.
  • My personal inventory of the seasonal things I love to buy every year, like hand soaps, candles, and candies. Things that are easy to overbuy in seasonal excitement.

Other common holiday binder components include budgets, gift lists, and a sheet on which to track Christmas card addresses.

I can’t recommend this idea enough! By updating my binder every January, I’m able to hit the ground running every September. It breaks up an enormous to do list into smaller, more regular deadlines, each with its own early reminder. It keeps me just ahead of the curve, so I’m able to pause more often to relax and enjoy my favorite time of the year.

If making your own lists seems intimidating, check out Etsy for beautiful printable holiday binder pages to get you started!

Two types of chicken stock

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Let’s talk chicken stock. First of all, let’s clear up the difference between broth and stock. Broth is made by simmering meat only; stock is made by simmering bones, thereby infusing it with the goodness of the marrow inside those bones. (So, yes, the popular term “bone broth” is a misnomer. It’s the same as stock.)

When making daily meals, I confess to using one of the many convenient boxes of Kitchen Basics broth I have stashed in my pantry. But I always have homemade stock in my freezer for two very specific situations: illness and holidays. When I’m not feeling well, nothing restores my soul better than flu-fighter chicken stock.

Flu-Fighter Chicken Stock
(Original recipe: Everyday Maven)

5 lb organic chicken (with bones and skin)
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
Water, approx. 20 cups
8 to 10″ lemongrass, sliced in half
3 to 4 shallots, cut in half lengthwise (skin on)
1 head garlic, cut in half across the middle (skin on)
3 to 4″ ginger root, peeled and sliced lengthwise
1 bunch scallion whites, cut lengthwise
2-3 tablespoons Kosher salt

Begin by cutting the chicken into the standard 9-pieces: 2 breasts, 2 thighs, 2 wings, 2 drumsticks, 1 backbone, cut down the middle to expose the marrow in the bones. Don’t let this part intimidate you; here’s a good visual aid if you need help with this.
Place the cut up chicken parts in a large stock pot. Cover the chicken with water and apple cider vinegar, let sit for at least 30 minutes while you prep everything else. The vinegar will extract minerals and calcium from the bones to make your stock even more of a nutritional powerhouse.
Meanwhile, prep all your aromatics. Chop scallions, slice shallots, peel ginger, cut garlic. (It’s strange to leave the skins on, but it’s fine. You’ll remove them later.)
Once the chicken has soaked in the water/vinegar mixture for 30 minutes, toss aromatics into the pot. Add salt.
Bring to a boil; skim foam off the top until it subsides. Lower heat to a gentle simmer and cook, covered, for 45 minutes.
Pull out the 2 breasts and 2 thighs and let them cool. When cool enough, pull off the meat and return the bones to the pot. (I usually dice and freeze that meat to add to the soup later.)
Simmer stock for another 2 hours and 15 minutes (total simmer time: 3 hours). Taste and adjust salt if necessary.
Allow to cool. Once cool enough, remove chicken parts, and set those aside to cool so you can pick the meat off remaining bones to use for the soup. Strain the rest into another pot, discarding all bits and bones. Refrigerate the remaining liquid to allow the fat to settle to the top. Gently ladle off the fat and discard it. The rest is your stock.*

The second type of stock I keep on hand is specifically for the holidays. It’s darker, has more depth of flavor, and makes a killer gravy!

Dark Roasted Chicken Stock
(Original recipe: Martha Stewart)

5 pounds assorted chicken parts including bones
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon tomato paste
2 medium carrots, peeled and chopped into 2­ inch lengths
2 celery stalks, chopped into 2­ inch lengths
2 medium onions, peeled and cut into quarters
1 cup red wine
1 dried bay leaf
1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns

Heat oven to 400 degrees. Place chicken parts in a single layer in a large heavy roasting pan. Drizzle with oil and turn to coat. Roast, turning once and stirring often for even browning, until beginning to brown, about 45 minutes. Remove from oven, add carrots, celery, and onion. Spread tomato paste over chicken pieces with pastry brush. Return pan to oven and roast until vegetables are browned and tender and bones are deeply browned, about 40 minutes.

Transfer bones and vegetables to large stockpot, then spoon off fat from roasting pan and discard. Set pan over two burners. Add wine and bring to a boil, scraping up any brown bits from bottom with wooden spoon. Boil until liquid is reduced by half, about 3 minutes. Pour everything into stockpot.

Add enough water (about 3 quarts) to cover chicken and vegetables by 1 inch. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to gentle simmer. Add bay leaf and peppercorns; cook 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 hours, skimming surface frequently.

Carefully pour stock through fine sieve into large bowl (do not press on solids); discard solids. Chill and store for up to 3 days in the refrigerator or up to 3 months in the freezer.

Thaw completely in refrigerator before using.*

*If your cooled stock ever appears gelatinous, do not despair! That means it contains a lot of collagen from the bones, and that is a very good thing! Just use as you would liquid stock; it will liquefy with heat.

Chocolate mint crinkle cookies

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These little gems taste like little brownie bites with a delicate hint of mint, and they taste even better than they look. They’re perfect for the holidays, or pretty much any other day, really, since the dough freezes well. The next time I make them, I plan to add semisweet chocolate chips, just for fun. If you don’t like mint, simply leave out the peppermint extract.

Chocolate mint crinkle cookies
Original recipe: Betty Crocker

2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup unsweetened baking cocoa
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups granulated sugar
1/2 cup vegetable oil
4 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon peppermint extract
1/2 cup powdered sugar

In medium bowl, mix flour, baking cocoa, baking powder and salt; set aside.
In large bowl, beat granulated sugar, oil and eggs with whisk until well mixed. Beat in vanilla and peppermint extract.
Stir dry ingredients into wet ingredients just until combined. Cover bowl with plastic wrap, and refrigerate at least 2 hours.
Heat oven to 350°F. Line cookie sheets with cooking parchment paper. Place powdered sugar in small bowl. Shape dough into tablespoon-size balls; roll in powdered sugar. Place on cookie sheets about 1 1/2 inches apart.
Bake 10 to 12 minutes, until cookies crackle and dough doesn’t look raw. Cool on cookie sheet 2 minutes. Remove to cooling rack; cool completely until candy is set.