Warm Wassail Drinks...Yule Tidings to All...and a cozy Christmas in front of a crackling fire

Warm "wassail" drinks of mulled cider, tiny Christmas tarts, gingerbread men galore, and good tidings to all fill this holiday season.  It is that time of the year when the world stops to pause and spread cheer and goodwill around the planet.  

Everything from Christian beliefs about Jesus' birth, pagan traditions involving decorated trees and stuffed stockings during midwinter festivals, fairy tales about chubby cheeked toy makers, have all been woven together in a historical as well as traditional tapestry that warmly blankets the world in a weave of celebrations, incantations, and adorations of all good things representing hope for happiness in the future.

The most wonderful part of discovering lovely blogs all over the world is enjoying insights into the festivities and traditions of charming families from France to New Zealand...and Poland to Croatia.  Seeing how different parts of the U.S. celebrate this time of year is a wonderful way to kick off the holiday celebrations.

My holidays this year intersected with a trip out to Oregon to babysit for my sweet little nephew while his parents, my sister and her husband, enjoyed time away trekking through Thailand.

I spent over two weeks in Portland, Oregon kissing those chubby cheeks on my nephew Luca and watching over him as, with his huge soulful brown eyes, he soaked in all of the sights and sounds of his two year old world.

Riley and I flew out to Oregon, set up "shop...meaning home away from home online schooling" at my sister's house and with our adorable two year old charge, immersed ourselves in all things "Sesame Street", "Barney", and "Bob the Builder".

Luca is a little boy with the sweetest and most generous of personalities.  Most of the time he was laughing and lighting up the room with his huge warm smile. But every now and then I would catch a pensive look as he observed his world (above, left) around him.  I adore those serious quiet moments when a little one looks into your eyes (or my camera) with such angelic seriousness.

We woke up that first morning to a beautiful cold sunrise and a sleepy household of cats along with our curly haired two year old.  

Riley immediately bonded with Charlie and Lilly, the cats, and I marveled how well Luca adapted to our presence as if nothing was amiss.  He got right to work banging on toys with his little wooden hammer and puttering along the floor with his little toy metallic truck.

Taking long walks was high on our list of "to dos" with the little guy because temperatures were in the mid-50's but was predicted to severely drop down below freezing by our second week there.

Whether it was the backpack, running stroller, or his adorable little red push car, Luca enjoyed each and every walk.  And why not? There were chickens and ducks in the neighborhood to stop and say hello to.  A tall creaky weathered tree house sits ready to be explored in a few years' time.  Neighborhood community gardens, with apple and nut trees, offer viewing variety and many houses were putting up their Christmas lights...and boy did Luca love the Christmas lights!

It was an adventurous time throwing myself back into those "mommy years".  Now that we are back at home and having a quiet Christmas celebration in Texas, it feels quite surreal that just a few weeks ago, I was changing diapers, cutting up food into tiny little squares, and laughing at "Mickey's Christmas Special" on the T.V...all the while cuddling little Luca cheeks and kissing tiny little 2 year old toes.

So immersed we were with our little toddler "charge", that after returning from Oregon, I had to completely switch gears and throw myself into Christmas decorating, prepping, shopping, and of course, cooking!  

I had a few ideas for a Christmas dinner menu but after returning home in December, I realized I still had my fall decorations...from Halloween up!

Seeing the sights and sounds of Portland, Oregon as the town there prepared for the holiday season was great fun for us.  The Oregon countryside is like one giant postcard of wintery holiday scenes, one after the other.

From the multitudes of holly bushes and holly trees dripping with their crimson berries...to the soaring pine trees that become dusted with snow flakes, Oregon is a perfect location for a charming Christmas setting.

Some of the apple trees still had a few apples left...almost ready to tumble to the ground.  Charlie and Lilly curled right up to us and tried to stay warm in the chilly air of early December in Portland.

At home in Texas, Patrick was holding down the fort by himself and preparing for us all to return from various directions.  Final exams of college were underway and then Madeleine would be ready to return home.  Poor Madeleine had all of her exams land on the same day so her Dad promised a bit of surprise snow upon her homecoming in the form of "Snowball" cookies, one of her favorites.

Mt. Hood in the distance from the top of Forest Park at Pittock Mansion

So with holiday festivities around the corner ready to be planned, but determined to soak in Oregon's goodness, Riley and I wrapped up Luca in his little boy hats and mitts and little boy shoes and took in the sights of Portland...a very special city indeed.

In the middle of Portland is a spacious gorgeous park called Forest Park.  It is huge. Forest Park is filled with all sorts of twisty hiking paths, babbling brooks, soft pine covered trails, and lush green pines that soar up into the sky.

A yearly tradition...Panettone Italian bread toasted with sprinkles of powdered sugar

We tucked Luca into his backpack and hiked our way to the top of of the city.  At the very top is an old family mansion called Pittock Mansion, built by one of the founding pioneer families of Portland in the early 1900's.

Not only is the hike up to the mansion like something out of "Robin Hood of Sherwood Forest" but once at the top, a breathtaking view of the entire city of Portland with Mt. Hood standing tall in the distance, is completely worth the hike.

Christmas Gingerbread Men...galore!

Mt. Hood is just beautiful rising up in the distance with the twinkling lights of Portland spread out down below.  Fortunately for us, the weather was clear, the sky was bright, and the mountain was in clear view over the city.  

Luca, Riley, and I loved the hike and were determined to uncover more jewels hidden in this massive piece of park land dedicated to preservation of nature and located smack in the middle of the city, minutes from my sister's house.  

Changing gears and thinking about my college girl, nose in the books and stressed with final exams, I knew a treat that I would prepare for her when she was due to come home for Christmas.

After Luca was tucked in for the night with his little down pillow on one side of his head and his beloved teddy bear nestled in the other corner of his bed, I sat down and penciled the recipe for little almond tarts adorned with sliced fruit that would be a "welcome home" treat when the college semester finally ended.  These would be my first Christmas sweets to prepare after returning home.  And I would make them resemble all of the gorgeous pine trees that cover the landscape all over the state of Oregon.

So onward to recapping more delights during our winter stay in Portland.  And what a delight we found in Portland's Japanese Gardens.  The gardens are located right at the edge of Forest Park.  From my big guy Riley to my little boy Luca, we thoroughly enjoyed a leisurely walk through this enchanting Japanese garden, beautifully maintained and authentically landscaped.  Riley has a keen interest in Japanese culture and Luca was captivated by all of the gurgling water fountains, coy filled ponds, and the tall majestic waterfall at the garden's center.   

Hot mulled cider spiced with apples and cinnamon

Back in Texas, enjoying the relaxation of a quiet Christmas this year, sipping on mulled cider spiced with apples and cinnamon, we reminisced that the Japanese Gardens was a certain highlight of our time spent in Portland.  As beautiful as it was in early December, I can only imagine the various mantles of foliage it dons in the spring and summer months.

But, while enjoying Oregon...and between warm bubble bath play times in the tub and nightly story times filled with thick books about firetrucks and Curious George escapades, my head started filling with anticipated menu preparations for our holiday table.

I would need to return and begin gathering winter root vegetables, like beets and parsnips, handfuls of brightly colored mandarin oranges, and a few crimson pomegranates with their bejeweled interiors.

Even though we didn't eat many duck entrées when we lived in Japan, after being at the Japanese Gardens, my mind began to move in the direction of Asia's main course favorites.  Crispy Roasted Duck layered in flavors of Mandarin Oranges sounded like a deliciously inspired main course for our holiday table.

I had tucked Saveur's latest issue in my bag for the Oregon trip.  On the front cover was a wonderfully succulent looking photo of a platter of orange scented crispy roast duck.  That's it...the main course was decided.

I say this rather "tongue in cheek"...but one can't help but notice a style trend running through the wardrobes of many Portlandians.  

Minutes after arriving at Portland's airport, plaid becomes a dominant style trend that I couldn't help but notice during my entire stay in Portland.  Plain flannel shirts, plaid flannel jackets, plaid flannel caps stood out as a primary wardrobe choice among the locals, finished off with sturdy hiking boots and warm puffy down jackets.

I love plaid.  I adore plaid.  Having worn a plaid school uniform for 12 years of my life...one will either hate plaid or love plaid..and I love it.  So, I thought, how about a plaid Christmas table setting this year?  I don't see much plaid in the wardrobes of Texans so, inspired by this style trademark of Oregon, I chose a red plaid tablecloth for the holiday table.

Now that the little guy was completely warmed up to us, whenever I mentioned the backpack or listening to gurgling waterfalls or seeing sparkling Christmas lights, he squealed with anticipation of our next outing.  

I would google photos of waterfalls or Christmas trees for him to see before going on an outing to get him excited about our destination for the day.  Right up the road from his house was a Christmas tree farm.  At night, all of the lights turned on and the place was twinkling with holiday charm.  One early evening, I strapped on the backpack and we made an outing of just wandering the aisles of Christmas trees so he could squeal in delight at all of the lights!

But, I recalled from our previous visits out West that there are bigger and bolder scenes to enjoy right outside of Portland, less than an hour's drive away to the east.

Along the Columbian Gorge, just east of Portland is a string of waterfalls, all lined up just off the Historic Columbia River Highway.

The weather was turning colder by the day so we got all wrapped up in our flannel plaids and down jackets and slipped into sturdy hiking boots to head off to Multnomah Falls.

Multnomah Falls is a striking 600 foot tall roaring waterfall that shoots out cascading layers of icy water with an impressive spray of power and majesty.  

We hiked up the paved walkway to get closer to the falls with other moms and dads also strapped with toddler filled backpacks.  Between the light spray coming from the falls, the roar of nature's sound as the water tumbled over the cliff, and the other toddlers in their backpacks right at eye level, Luca was captivated by it all.

However, it wasn't until we were back at the car that the true delight...the most captivating attraction of them all...the ultimate pièce de la resistance...completely enthralled this delightful two year old more than any scenic creation of nature.

A roaring, loud, noisy, clanging train barreled right behind the parking lot of the falls, speeding onwards towards Portland.  With huge eyes, Luca was mesmerized by the powerful scene.  Riley and I laughed at the hilarity of always being surprised by what is going to beguile a toddler.

A-choo-choo train...chug, chug, chugging along at top speed was the most memorable event for him of that day.  Lucky for him, the train came by three times while I was feeding him his snack in the car.  So, we would rush out of the car and stare in awe as the train roared by...get back in the car...Riley would roll his eyes...Luca would eat a bit more of snack...and rush out of the car again at the first sounds of another chug-a-lug...well...one can get the picture of how we spent snack time at the waterfall.

The weather was turning against us but before it really turned wicked cold, slick, and icy...we took a drive out one day towards Mt. Hood.

Listening to crooning lullaby CDs in the car and with a sleeping toddler during his nap time, we managed to climb our way up and over the majestic pine covered hills towards the base of Mt. Hood to see beautiful scenes of snowy landscape.

Enchanting. Beguiling.  Picture-postcard pines dusted with a fresh layer of snow escorted us all the way up to the majestic base of handsome Mt. Hood.  Having been in a very flat landscape for 3 years now in Texas, the absolute and dramatic change in landscape was enthralling and welcome.

During our stay in Oregon, Riley and I had one complete day to ourselves without centering the day around meal times and nap times.  Luca spent the day with another adorable 2 year old at his babysitter's house.

It wasn't difficult to determine what to do with our day.  We headed over the hills and literally through the woods until we popped directly out onto a high cliff of the Pacific Ocean at Ecola State Park which overlooks lovely Cannon Beach, about 2 hours west of Portland.

We passed one farmstand after another.  Whereas, journeying out of Portland to the east was filled with Christmas tree farms, the western drive was filled with mostly shuttered farm stands that must be lively and full of produce during the spring and summer months.

The air was truly getting frosty now and I was glad that little Luca was safely playing at his friend's house all nice and snug inside a warm home.  

A fragile veil of opaque frost lay gently on the rolling fields.  Our drive was quiet, few cars were on the road, and it was a lovely and gentle country drive before reaching the dramatically different rocky craggy coast of Western Oregon.

I love traveling "off season".  The roads are empty of lines of cars and the mood of the locals is relaxed and laid back.  We had no particular time frame on getting to the coast so I took several turns here and there to see what the country roads of Oregon have to offer during these winter months.

How does a mom do this kind of meandering in the countryside with a 17 year old son in the car?  We all know as a mother of teens that "driving...off the beaten path" is NOT quite what they want to hear...and do.  All I can say is thank goodness for electronic loving kids.  

Sometimes I feel like I plug in the directions into the GPS and then I plug in my teen son into a gaming unit.  Freedom for a couple of hours until I can see sense again and think of some educational angle to present about our travels.  And voilà!  We were traveling alongside the Lewis and Clark trail!  He was fairly impressed by that...but he was more impressed by the rugged beauty of the coastline of Oregon.

We drove through the most enchanting forested drive high up through Ecola State Park, which wraps around Tillamook Head between Seaside and Cannon Beach.

The view there is spectacular.  There was one other person enjoying the day there and we felt so privileged to have almost the entire stretch of coastline to ourselves.

The wind knocked us about as gusts buffeted the cliffside.  The pine trees swayed and tangled themselves behind us with such a wonderful tousled sound.

Another path along the cliffside seems uneventful until a glimpse of a lonely windswept lighthouse peeks up on the horizon.  This tiny lighthouse looks so hopeful and at the same time desolate, clinging to a sole rocky precipice out there amidst the blue layers and shades of ocean water.

We tried to imagine what it must have been like living out there, waiting for ships to come near the dangerous shores and trying to ward off catastrophe with just a beacon of light.  

So what does traveling, hiking, and wondrous bouts of chilled air do?  It all works up a wonderful appetite!  Twice on our day's outing we were recommended to stop in at the seafood restaurant along the coast called Mo's Seafood on Cannon Beach.

We plugged the address into the GPS and within minutes we were pulling into a little beachside joint sitting directly on the beach front mere steps away from the rolling ocean waves.

The view was spectacular.  From the south to the north, it was nothing but water, sand, waves, huge rocks, and seagulls floating along the air pockets.

We had a sweet view of Haystack Rock right out the window where we were seated...so all that was left was to tuck into a beautiful hot bowl of seafood chowder and finish off a wonderful wintery day.

I had the Bouillabaisse seafood stew and Riley enjoyed the clam chowder.  The stew was amply stocked with all manner of seafood varieties, was flavored well, and nice and hot.   The beach was nearly empty and we enjoyed a leisurely lunch before turning around for the lovely drive back into Portland.

Getting back to the routine of caretaking activities with Luca and seeing all of the excitement in the city about the impending holidays made me wander again through my mental list of menu planning for our own holiday table back home in Texas.

The final menu plan would be:  

Crispy Roast Duck with Mandarin Wine Sauce
...inspired by the Japanese Gardens in Portland.   
Brioche rolls
...because there must always be brioche - this time with a pesto swirl.  
Potatoes au Gratin
with Fontina Cheese
Roasted Root Vegetables with Garlic, Rosemary, and Thyme 
Gateau de Sirop
...inspired by the dessert enjoyed on Prince Edward Island back in August. 

All set on a backdrop of Portlandian Plaid!

Crispy Roasted Duck with a Mandarin Wine Sauce

Root Vegetables Roasted with Garlic, Rosemary, and Thyme

Delicious Buttery Brioche Rolls with Pesto Swirl

There must be some variety and form of brioche on the holiday table.  Brioche is my all time favorite bread.  I try not to bake it at any other time of year so we can all look forward to this yeasty flavored European treat.

This year, I found a recipe for brioche rolls with a swipe of pesto rolled into the layers.  If we were hosting a large Christmas gathering, I may not pair them alongside roast duck but since it would be a cozy small affair this year...buttery brioche rolls with pesto swirl...it would be.

(Bottom Left:  Potatoes au Gratin with Fontina Cheese and Thyme)
Bottom Right:  Dead Bolt Red Wine Blend

No holiday table in our family would be complete without a potato dish.  Au gratins are among the favorites so to bring in some variety this year, I chose a Gratin with Fontina Cheese and Thyme.

And a very heartfelt thank you to the folks in Napa Valley for gifting us this holiday with several bottles of the newly launched Dead Bolt Red Wine.  I think it must be apparent that from reading my "thyme blog" a bottle of red wine often adorns our Sunday table.  So, they wanted to give our family a red blend a try with our holiday meal.

We sampled both the red and white varieties.  The red blend is described as "featuring a red fruit aroma, flavors of black cherry, mocha and brown spice. . Well, we are not wine experts and everyone has a different preference in wine taste but we thoroughly enjoyed these bottles with our dinner menu as well as paired them with a brie and cranberry cheese tray during the holiday week.  

This wine is a versatile one.  It is lighter in flavor than what we usually drink and paired very well the the overlapping flavors of such a rich dinner.  We would nod our heads "yes"...and recommend readily to give these blends a try if you're looking for something that appeals to many for your next gathering with friends.

Christmas Dinner 2013

Gateau de Sirop with Salted Bourbon Carmel Sauce

Finally, for dessert...a dessert that was planned months ago while staying at the gorgeous and remote Dalvay-by-the-Sea resort on Prince Edward Island.  I wrote about our stay here and how much I enjoyed the resort's spiced dessert cake.  The thick dark square of cake was sitting in a shallow pool of salted bourbon carmel sauce.  It has been on my mind ever since that trip.  I remember remarking after my first taste of this moist and molasses infused spice cake...this will be my holiday dessert this year.  And...here it is!

Saying goodbye to Oregon, as we flew over Mt. Hood and enjoyed this handsome angle one final time, was bittersweet.  We wondered what would be Luca's reaction to his Christmas tree this year?  We left behind a new racecar gift for him and imagined his delight discovering the buttons and sounds that it makes.  The holidays are so beautiful and magical seen through the eyes of little ones...something not to be missed for sure!

I'll look forward to the day when the pitter patter of little feet come in the form of my own grandchildren (which I hope is a long way off yet!).  What a different perspective I will have knowing how much I fretted and worried every step of the way when my own two were small.  Until then, I have lots of roads to travel, wondrous books to read, quiet country drives to enjoy...and with hopefully good health and happiness holiday meals to plan for our future.

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