Stocking Stuffers, Friendly Fare, & Tokens for Teachers

Festive, affordable candles & holiday tea towels from H&M home make a great hostess or teacher gift.

Festive, affordable candles & holiday tea towels from H&M home make a great hostess or teacher gift.

It’s officially the last week of school before break and 8 more sleeps until Christmas day! With this in mind,  I thought I would share some of my favorite go to’s for teacher, hostess & friends holiday gifts.

Handmade gifts: 

Homemade sweet treats & chocolates for gifting. Cherry walnut biscotti, almond biscotti, truffles, and dark chocolate cookies, tied with a ribbon and topped with an ornament.

Homemade sweet treats & chocolates for gifting. Cherry walnut biscotti, almond biscotti, truffles, and dark chocolate cookies, tied with a ribbon and topped with an ornament.

 I’ve written a bit about our little college town in Michigan, filled with friends and tradition.  One of my favorites I learned when we moved here was gifting handmade treats among friends.  These are not expensive gifts, but instead thoughtfully hand-crafted gifts from each of our homes. 

I recognize that the holidays are busy.  Full to capacity and beyond.  I feel this acutely.  Heck, I work for a Christmas tree company-- this is my go season! But once again, I’ve re-learned the beauty of creating room in my December schedule to bake, create & gift.   These gifts are not hugely expensive, but instead require slowing down and giving the gift of time and thoughtfulness.  In many ways, today’s most precious commodity.  

My friend, Joanna, often roasts rosemary-herbed candied nuts and includes specialty chocolates.  Jaminda changes it up each year—we’ve had homemade cinnamon infused simple syrup, raw jarred honey from a local bee grower, chai tea packs, etc…, Joni often assembles soup mixes in a sweet mason jar.  For the Lutz family, my husband, Brock, roasts coffee and I love to bake old school Italian cookies (note some of main website photos).  

Coffee and handmade cards. This particular card & coffee was gifted to us, but Brock roasts coffee each year for friends and family.

Coffee and handmade cards. This particular card & coffee was gifted to us, but Brock roasts coffee each year for friends and family.

Teacher gifts:

This is a tricky one…  My aunt taught for 35 years.  And I remember each December going through the large box of Christmas gifts that students showered her with each Christmas.  I also remember that one can only fill cabinets with so many #1 Teacher mugs.  So needless to say, my initial go to is gift cards.  But interestingly, my kids like to gift actual gifts.  They were embarrassed by my Amazon gift cards last year.  “Mom, why can’t we give chocolates or a real gift?  Gift cards are boring!” Ha! They haven’t had to make space for the billionth mug. ; ) But they are on to something—it’s infinitely more special to open up a box with a surprise treasure inside than a generic gift card. 

This year, I decided to combine the best of both worlds, a small gift along with a gift card.  When it comes to gifts, I like to include things that I use up each year or need to be updated/replaced.  Some of my favorites include, a quality candle, holiday towels & hand soap. My favorites are: Mrs. MeyersMichel Design Works (found in specialty stores), Trader Joe’s White Pine hand soap (found in store), Williams Sonoma Hand soaps.  I like nice hand soaps as a gift, a small luxury that I balk at buying it for myself, but always appreciate as a gift.  

A few of my favorite candles for friend and hostess gifts… Gilt Pomonder Hinoki by Voluspa.  You can find them at Anthropologie.  They are definitely a little spendy, so I like to wait for 30% off sales and stock up.  Little splurges make great gifts! The Capri blue found at Anthro is another favorite. I’ve gifted a few of these this year, and was delighted when a friend brought me one during our homecoming festivities.  Love this candle! 

For something a little more affordable, I am enjoying the home shop from H&M.  Over black Friday I purchased hand towels and small holiday candles.  We will gift those along with $10 coffee gift cards to teachers this year.  

Last year, my husband bought thermal coffee mugs and gift cards for aides and teachers who stand outside helping load and unload cars in the Michigan cold each day.  Another fun practical combo. 

 Stocking stuffers & such:

A few useful stocking stuffers. I know this is sacrilege to some people, but I love gifts that I can use around the house, and these items are top on my stocking stuffer list!

A few useful stocking stuffers. I know this is sacrilege to some people, but I love gifts that I can use around the house, and these items are top on my stocking stuffer list!

 I like to fill stockings with some of my favorite things…a little Oprah inspired! : ) And weirdly, or not, I like gifting practical household items that I love - including my favorite kitchen cloths from Trader Joe’s, the window Enviro cloth from Norwex (ps…I have no affiliation with Norwex, I was introduced to these a few years ago and simply like them). The Window cloth is amazing.  Not sure how it works with just water, but it does. Finally, scouring pads from Amway.   My Aunt Deb gifts these to the women in our family each year, and after nearly 20 years, they have become household favorites and kitchen must haves!

So that’s my favorite gift round up for 2018. I would love to hear some of your favorite affordable gift ideas as well. Leave them in the comments below!

Channeling Your Inner Holiday Hostess

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This post is for my life long best friend and partner in crime, Monica.  She messaged me a few weeks ago needing some recipes for an upcoming holiday party she was hosting.  She remembered a thinly sliced beef tenderloin served for my 40th birthday celebration and requested that recipe along with a few others.

Entertaining doesn’t have to be stressful!  After you’ve created your guest list & type of event you plan to host, plan your menu. For this particularly party, they are hosting work friends for appetizers and drinks.  Here are a few holiday hosting tips and recipes:

 1.    Don’t make everything from scratch.

Pick a few recipes to make and then assemble the rest.  

Food to assemble: Cheese platter with fruit and nuts.  Find your favorite platter & fill with 3+ cheeses, an array of nuts, seasonal fruit (for Christmas I think honey crisp apples, pomegranates, clementines and small berries fit the bill.  A good cheddar, soft cheese (brie or goat cheese), or a blue cheese if you like something strong

For sweet treats, go to the bakery for desserts. When I lived in Cleveland I had a few favorites that I frequented.  Fragapane’s for cannoli and cassata cakeDick’s Bakery in Berea for Date and Nut cake, and A Cookie and a Cupcake for special events, to name a few.  

Also, bowls of your favorite chocolates, nuts, and such go a long way.  Trader Joe’s and Costco are great sources for delicious, affordable nuts and chocolates.  A few of my favorites from TJ’s: Turbinado sugar dark chocolate almonds, dark chocolate covered peanut butter cups, chocolate covered salted graham crackers. From Costco: Sanders dark chocolate covered salted caramels.

Finally, don’t be afraid to say yes to guests that offer to bring something—whether it’s a bottle of wine, an appetizer or plate of cookies, say yes to help!  

Amazing variety of holiday cookies brought by friends—molasses, peppermint chocolate chunk, and Italian lemon cookies.

Amazing variety of holiday cookies brought by friends—molasses, peppermint chocolate chunk, and Italian lemon cookies.

2.    Choose a main dish and appetizers that feel special.  

My very favorite is roasted beef tenderloin sliced thin, served with horseradish, gourmet mustards, and a variety of rolls, good cheese and crusty bread.  

Here’s how to prep the tenderloin, according to my friend Stephanie. I promise, she’s the master.

Roasted Beef Tenderloin

Trim and tie the tenderloin and the season with Montreal steak seasoning blend by McCormickand Flavor by Penzey’s. Sear in olive oil until nicely browned and then pat with butter and roast at 475 until med rare. (Side note from Jen: I recommend investing in a good thermometer.  This was never clearer to me than this Thanksgiving when neither my mom or I could find a working meat thermometer. Here’s the thermometer I have on my Christmas list—I’ve read a lot of good reviews about it, and hopefully Santa is taking note.) I then freeze until almost frozen—about 3 hours. Remove string. Cut crosswise into very thin slices. (Put between parchment to store if doing the day before.). To serve, cover large platter with arugula or watercress and the slices of beef. Drizzle with a little oil, lemon juice, Parmesan shavings and serve with rolls or baguette slices and the sauce detailed below.

Mustard Horseradish sauce

¾  Cup good mayo (I prefer Helman’s)

1 ½ Tablespoons Dijon mustard

1 Tablespoon Whole grain mustard

½ Tablespoon Prepared horseradish

2 Tablespoons Sour cream

Kosher salt to taste

Side note: challenge yourself by learning from people who are better cooks than you.  When I moved to Michigan 7 years ago, I felt pretty confident in my cooking ability.  In my twenties, I even had a side hustle catering. But when I moved, I connected with people who took cooking to the next level, and Stephanie is one of those people.  I had made roast tenderloin for years and it was delicious, but hers was next level.  She took the time to properly trim and tie her meat before searing and roasting which creates a more even heat distribution.  I learned how important it was to quickly sear the meat and lock in flavors. Thanks, Steph! : )

Glazed Ham  

This is one of my favorites for feeding a crowd.  Ham seems fancy, it’s plentiful and not only is it a festive addition to any table, it’s also very affordable. Skip the glaze packet that come with the ham—making your own glaze is quick and so much better. My go to glaze is from the cookbook, Hungry, Feeding Men and Boys by Lucinda Scala Quinn.

Side note: this particular cookbook is a favorite.  Lucinda Scala Quinn was the food director for Martha Stewart for years and hosted her own cooking show.  She has also raised 3 boys.  I resonate with her approach to cooking, entertaining and feeding her family.  She loves gathering her family & friends, and her recipes are down to earth and achievable. Her Insta feed—in particular her stories where she cooks—are great!  

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Roasted Shrimp Cocktail

My favorite way to prep shrimp—toss in whatever spices you prefer and roast it for 8-10 minutes in the oven (until shrimp are pink and firm to touch).  Also learned this from Ina Garten.  It’s quick, simple and fool proof.  Sometimes I do this the day before an event and keep it chilled in the fridge. 

A good dip - Artichoke and spinach is a crowd pleaser, for good reason.  It’s so delicious and feels warm and cozy on a winter night. Honestly, I’ve been known to buy the Terre Fina brand at Costco, sprinkle with parmesan, warm in the oven and serve with crackers or pretzel thins. Or some type of veggie dip (homemade hummus, Sundried tomato dip, or a favorite that pairs well with veggies.    

Drinks: You can keep it simple with sparkling water, wine & favorite beer.  If you’re feeling fancy, serve a signature drink. 

Here’s a favorite that my friend, Jaminda, makes during the holidays:

Eggnog Martinis

Two parts vodka, 1 part Eggnog, 1/2 part Buttershots (flavored liquor).  Shake that and then pour into glasses.  Add a splash of cream soda at the end.  This gives it some fizz.  So good! 

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3.   Employ music, candles and simple décor to set the tone. 

 I know using the word simple sounds a bit ridiculous coming from the woman who decorates Christmas trees for a living, but you really can keep it simple and beautiful at the same time.  

Candles and greens go a long way. Tea lights, pine roping or clipping from a pine tree in the back yard are perfect accents on the holiday table. Before guests come, turn on the holiday music, have drinks ready to go, and light the candles.  Easy peasy!

Do you have any go to recipes for holiday parties? I would love to hear from you. Happy hosting & happy holidays!