Beautiful Gifts That Are Always Welcome
In recent years, our family holiday celebrations have been shrinking. With my brothers living hours away or clear across the country, we haven’t had a family reunion since my mom died. With dad long gone, Mom was the tie that bound my birth family together, if pretty loosely. I haven’t seen my brothers in years, though we’re sporadically in touch. I’ve encouraged my son and his wonderful wife to make their own family holiday traditions with their young children. My daughter and I are quite happy with very modest plans. Of course, I share some holiday cooking and crafting activities with my grandkids when they’re here for the day, but the days of excess are thankfully gone.
This new simplicity is fine by me, because I’ve been struggling for years (ok decades) with an out-of-balance urge to gift extravagantly (yet somehow equally !?!) to my kids, who couldn’t possibly reciprocate. It was a shock to realize that my extravagance created both gratitude and some overwhelmed resentment. In fact, when I announced that I’m no longer giving gifts to adults and didn’t want any myself, my adult kids were relieved. The thing is, I’ve enjoy being generous since early childhood. I like being able to share the bounty, but now that there’s less bounty, I have to be less impulsive, more careful and thoughtful about giving.
The Gift That Requires More Giving
For one thing, I’m more aware now of the chains of obligation that can get started with even a small act. Yesterday a young woman mentioned receiving a $5 Starbucks gift card at the office and feeling dismayed and conflicted. Should she reciprocate? Should she give something to everyone? She works in a government office mostly staffed by men and had assumed (probably quite rightly) that obligatory gifting wouldn’t be an issue. She was wondering if she should buy a big jar of treats and make little gift bags to give everyone. Yikes! Several of us encouraged her to resist the reflexive gifting, because it can cascade into far more than anyone intended. Busy young moms don’t need to come up with another 50 “little” gifts that don’t mean anything significant to anyone, including the giver. In such situations, maybe donate to Habitat For Humanity or an aid/service ground and post the card in the staff room.
Of course, my new simplicity is entirely voluntary, unlike that of holidays for millions of dispossessed people around the world. And unlike the enforced simplicity for people in my own country-state-town, people who are living in cars or tents and definitely not stressing about whether to send cards or cut back on the gifting habit. I still make things for the immediate family, but I’ve replaced second- and third-tier gifting with acts, like serving homemade food to people who are sleeping out, or handing out blankets and warm clothing.
Food, Beautiful Food
Having made all these bold resolutions, I find myself incapable of not making A FEW things for friends and neighbors. Happily, food is almost universally acceptable and if the experience of making or eating is shared, food gifts can lead to genuine interaction. Thus, the neighbor kids make cookies with my grandkids and take home a plateful, and their grandmother comes by with their youngest one to share a delightful Russian pastry and a cup of tea. Yay! Since most people say that special food is their favorite part of the holidays, here are some simple recipes for easy-to-make edible wreaths that look beautiful, taste wonderful, and are perfect for bringing to potlucks and parties.
Stuffed with sweet or savory fillings, these fragrant treats freeze beautifully; thaw and reheat briefly (15 minutes at 225 degrees) to bring out that amazing fresh bread smell. There’s no need to knead, as the patting and rolling does the trick. To reduce mess, work on a rimmed baking sheet and bake each wreath as soon as it rises. Basically, you shape dough into a long snake, about 28-30 inches long and 8-10 inches wide, which bites its own tail once filled. Place the snake seam-side down, then snip with scissors along the outer edge every inch or so. Tightly roll the dough to make cinnamon spirals, or simply fold over and gently pinch shut for fatter fillings. As the dough rises, the wreath gets wider, so center it on the pan.
Basic Bread Wreath
1-1/4 cups hot water
1 tablespoon molasses
1 teaspoon kosher or sea salt
1 teaspoon dry yeast
1 tablespoon avocado or plain vegetable oil
4-5 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
In a mixing bowl, combine hot water, molasses, salt, and yeast. Let stand until yeast blooms (about 15 minutes). Stir in oil and enough flour to make a soft dough. Cover and let rise for 30 minutes, then transfer to a floured, rimmed baking sheet. Roll or pat into a long U-shape about 28-30 inches long and 6-7 inches deep. Fill, pinch ends together, snip, let rise and bake as directed each recipe.
Enjoy playing around with favorite ingredients; spinach and feta or soft goat cheese with green onions and smoked trout are wonderful starting places. Any yummy appetizer spread or dip will work, from artichoke and cheese to smoked salmon, as long as it’s thick; runny fillings make a leaky mess. For sweet treats, consider adding dried fruits, chopped nuts, and flaked coconut to the cinnamon spice rolls, spread the dough with homemade jam or lemon curd. Yum!
Holiday Spice Wreath
1 batch bread wreath dough
2 tablespoons avocado or plain vegetable oil
3 tablespoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon each coriander, ginger, and cardamom
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
Working on a floured, rimmed baking sheet, make dough snake and brush with oil, leaving edges oil-free. Sift sugar and spices together and sprinkle evenly over the oil, then add brown sugar and press down gently. Roll dough up lengthwise to make a fairly tight “snake” and form the circle, seam-side-down, pinching ends firmly together. With kitchen scissors, make even cuts all around the outer edge. Let rise for 30 minutes. Bake at 350 degrees F until firm and golden (40-50 minutes). Let cool for 10-15 minutes before serving or serve at room temperature.
Ham & Leek Filling
8 ounces soft goat cheese at room temperature
1/3 cup grated Parmesan or Romano cheese
1/4 teaspoon kosher or sea salt
1/8 teaspoon smoked paprika
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 leek, thinly sliced (white/pale green parts only)
1/2 cup finely chopped onion
2 cups shredded kale
1 cup finely chopped ham
1 batch bread wreath dough
Mash goat cheese with grated cheese, salt and smoked paprika, set aside. In a wide, shallow pan, combine oil, leeks, onion, kale and ham over medium heat and cook, stirring, until soft (5-6 minutes). Cool slightly and blend with goat cheese. On a rimmed, floured baking sheet, prepare dough snake. Spread ham mixture over prepared dough, leaving 1/2 inch edges free of spread. Gently roll up dough and make the circle, seam-side-down, pressing ends together well. With kitchen scissors, snip all around the outer edge. Let rise for 30 minutes. Bake at 350 degrees F until firm and golden (40-50 minutes). Let cool for 10-15 minutes before serving or serve at room temperature.