Prepping for the Holidays

Oh, goody. Halloween is nearly here, and I have always regarded
the holiday as the beginning of the holiday season.
Oh, goody. Halloween is nearly here, and I have always regarded the holiday as the beginning of the holiday season. It’s a lighthearted overture to the more heartfelt occasions of Thanksgiving, Christmas or Hanukkah, and New Year’s Eve.

That makes this a good time to stand back, think about the holidays ahead and start making some easy preparations that will keep the festive months relaxed and fun, instead of stressful.

One of the things I aim for all the time, but especially during the holidays, is to be able to welcome people for a treat or even a meal at a moment’s notice. Here again, a bit of planning in advance can make a big difference.

So, here’s a recipe for getting yourself, and your kitchen, ready for the happy days ahead.

Holiday Planning Recipe

1 spiral-bound notebook or three-ring binder plus paper, in a comfortable size

1 pencil with eraser

15 minutes per day when you can be relatively uninterrupted

1 cup of your favorite beverage to sip while planning

Step 1: Sit down with your notebook and pencil, and set the microwave timer for 15 minutes.

Step 2: List the occasions for which you would like to plan: Perhaps you are hosting Thanksgiving dinner but going elsewhere for Christmas, and your New Year’s Eve plans aren’t yet complete. Maybe you would also like to have some friends over for coffee and treats, or you’d like to send cookies to kids far away or to someone overseas in the service.

Now, stop here for the day, and congratulate yourself for getting started.

During your next 15-minute session, sketch out menus for the meals you’ll be preparing, a list of baked goods you want to make, and any other occasions you have listed. If you put each menu or list on a separate page and skip a few pages in between them, you’ll have room to include notes and shopping lists.

Once again, stop when the timer rings.

In your next session, note by each menu item – which may be as general as “sweet potatoes” – if there’s a particular recipe you want to use, or maybe note that you haven’t figured out specifically what to prepare.

The purpose of these steps is to allow you to go into the kitchen and look critically at what you have, what you need to replace and what you need to add. By starting early, by keeping your notes in one place and by using a pencil, you’ll be able to change your mind, erase and add new things as you go along.

Also, by thinking through the actual meals and the other types of foods you’ll make (cookies to send, foods to have with coffee or wine), you can be more systematic in stocking up.

Here are a couple of lists to help with your thinking:

• Baking staples

• All-purpose flour

• White sugar

• Brown sugar (If you don’t use this often, check that the box in the back of the cupboard isn’t impossibly hard.)

• Baking soda

• Baking powder (For both this and baking soda, go ahead and buy new. These are susceptible to humidity and lose their leavening power if they’re not fresh.)

n Cream of tartar

n Vegetable shortening (I use at least part shortening in cookies and pie crust because I prefer the texture. You may choose to use butter only.)

n Unsalted butter (I buy this when it’s on special and freeze it. Unsalted butter is called for in many recipes, but it is more subject to rancidity than salted butter.)

• Oatmeal

• Baking chocolate

• Chocolate and other chips (toffee, butterscotch)

• Real vanilla extract

• Cinnamon

• Nuts (If shelled, they can be stored in the freezer. However, shelling nuts is a good family activity.)

With these basic ingredients (plus eggs and milk that you’ll have bought fresh), you can make pie crust, biscuits and scones, lots of different cookies, and brownies.

Other staples

This is the time of year to check your dried herbs and spices. In particular, check your pumpkin pie recipe, your turkey stuffing recipe and any other standards, and make sure you have the required spices on hand and that they are still fresh enough to use. How can you tell? The sniff test: If you sniff and don’t smell anything, toss the jar and buy a new one.

Following are the spices I count on. For pumpkin pie:

• Ground ginger

• Cinnamon

• Ground cloves

For stuffing and turkey stock:

• Sage

• Thyme

• Bay leaf

• Peppercorns

• Whole cloves

Dried green herbs such as sage and thyme are extra-prone to losing all their flavor, so give them the sniff test. Buy the smallest size you can find. Some are available in cellophane bags or bulk at natural food stores, or you might have dried your own. Put them in a small, airtight jar or plastic container and store away from heat and light.

This is also a good time to take another 15 minutes and go through the jars to discard anything else that’s dead or can’t even be identified. (Don’t ask me how I know.)

Finally, here’s a list of items to buy when they’re on special, so they’ll be available when you need them:

• Bacon (can be frozen)

• Canned beans

• Canned broth, chicken and beef

• Coffee (whole-bean keeps much better than ground)

• Cornstarch

• Honey

• Maple syrup

• Oils: olive, vegetable

• Pasta (dried and frozen, such as ravioli or tortellini)

• Canned pumpkin

• Rice

• Tea or tea bags

• Canned tomatoes and sauce

• Wine, if you like it

It’s also a good time to cast a cold eye on your baking pans and other equipment. Are your cookies sheets warped and crusty? Is the handle about to fall off your all-purpose skillet? Is the inside of the tea kettle hopelessly encrusted with minerals? Once again, a dedicated 15-minute session – if you are truly ruthless – will be plenty of time to weed out the culprits and write down what you need to replace.

Here is a final list of miscellaneous items that you can buy when you find them on sale or at a dollar store, and save yourself some heartburn later:

• Wax paper

• Foil

• Plastic wrap

• Plastic containers

• Transparent tape

• Package tape (One year I splurged and bought not only the tape but a heavy-duty packing-tape gun, and it saves so much frustration and annoyance that I have never been sorry.)

• Bubble wrap (to prevent cookies breaking en route)

• Marking pens

• Stamps (I like to buy interesting stamps all year long and use them, as well as Christmas stamps, for holiday cards.)

• Trash bags

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