What To Eat For New Year's Eve: Grilled Pizza

My best internet search of 2016? How To Make Grilled Pizza. My life changed when I googled that. I mean, wow. But first, let me say, Happy New Year to all of you: my followers and friends! I am so grateful for you - those who read, those who read and comment, those who share things, those who just drop an email and tell me I'm not the only person who thinks a good mac & cheese is borderline spiritual territory. So first I am going to be a mother and insist that you'd do much better to stay home tonight and ring in the new year safely (or stay with your party hosts) rather than become prey to the careening drunks (or become a careening drunk yourself). Now that I'm done warning you against opening 2017 with a massive hangover, let's eat.

Pizza is an anytime-thing in my opinion. And it's an any-topping thing. Except maybe pineapple. I don't know why I can't stand pineapple on pizza, considering how much I love pineapple. Either way, I was thinking over NYE plans and how...I don't know...how blase appetizers are. Don't get me wrong - I like appetizers but sometimes I sit there wondering how many I've eaten and why I ate them and how those-meatballs-weren't-even-delicious and then I just think, "I should have eaten pizza." So guys, this post is all about pizza. Grilled pizza! And if you haven't met grilled pizza at this stage in your life, hurry on with the introduction. It's life-changing. Do you have a grill? You have the ability to make pizza so beautiful and delicious it is A) automatically a great background for your iPhone and B) as good if not better than all those "wood-fired" pizzas we consistently crave. I love running my pizza antics in an organized, local-inspired fashion. What's in season? Can we put it on a pizza? So the pizza starring in this post is very winter-inspired. And low-key inspired by anise biscotti my grandmother used to make every Christmas. I started with fennel because, by golly, I wanted to finally know how to use that frondy thingamajig that looks suspiciously like a cross between dill weed and a bunch of celery. So yes, I googled how to prepare fennel and whether you might be able to shave it thin on a pizza and guess what? Yep. Then my eyes jumped to a sign advertising blood oranges and then this sort of madness carried me over to goat cheese and some smoked salmon and that's how this delightfully fresh winter pizza happened. Let's revist the logic here, okay?

- citrus and anise-flavors combine well in biscotti
- citrus and goat cheese is a win
- goat cheese and smoked salmon is basically cream cheese and lox
- salmon and citrus is a glad combination
- citrus and fennel and goat cheese and salmon would, therefore, a good pizza make

Or something like that. It's not impenetrable logic, but it worked out for me so I think my goodwill carried the day. The flavor combination is surprisingly gentle-yet-unusual. And gosh, the char on the pizza from the grill. So basically what you do is make a pizza dough, crinkle it out into whatever botched shape it ends up, grill one side, flip the pizza onto a tray, top it, and return it to the grill to grill the other side and melt the ingredients on top. Don't worry - the pizza dough doesn't slip through the cracks when your grill is hot enough! I'll run back through all this in the directions, but here: take a gawk.

First off, let it be known that I learned how to make grilled pizza from the instructions at SimplyRecipes. I mean, not the chicest site in internet town but darned good for actually figuring out what you're doing and admitting you don't know how yet. From them I learned how non-scary grilled pizza making is and so, though I will sketch out what to do, you'd just as well go read their post first. Now that you're back, let's begin!

Grilled Salmon, Blood Orange, And Fennel Pizza 

Pizza Dough - makes enough for two 10" pizzas
1 1/2 cups warm water
2 1/4 teaspoons active dry yeast
1 teaspoon sugar or honey
2 Tablespoons olive oil
2 teaspoons sea salt
3 1/2 cups all purpose flour
cornmeal for dusting

Pizza toppings - whatever you want but I used:
- 2 blood oranges, supremed
- shaved fennel bulb
- fennel fronds
- 1/2 of large package of smoked salmon
- 2 cups mozzarella cheese
- 4 ounces soft goat cheese
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
4 Tablespoons olive oil

  1. For dough: dissolve yeast in warm water with sugar or honey. While it proofs, mix salt and flour in large mixing bowl. Add water + yeast and olive oil, then mix until smooth. Knead for a couple minutes, then allow to rest, covered, in a warm place until doubled (about an hour).
  2. When pizza dough is ready, light your grill to high heat. Heat until the grill is nice and hot and you can't hold your palm above the grate for more than two seconds. With a pair of tongs, dip a paper towel in olive oil and grease the grate lightly.
  3. Pat out two pizzas from your dough and allow them to rest on a cornmeal-dusted tray. Transfer to grill and grill for 5-10 minutes, until bottom is nice and golden/charred.
  4. Flip pizzas "raw" side down on cornmeal dusted trays and top. I brushed mine with olive oil instead of pizza sauce and topped it with cheese, herbs, salmon, and blood oranges.
  5. With a large spatula transfer back on grill and close lid. Grill for 7-10 minutes, until toppings are melted/tender/etc.
  6. Serve immediately from grill for deepest yum factor.

Again, Happy New Year! See you in 2017 and let me know what manner of deliciousness you threw on your pizzas! This is such a fun "project" to collaborate on with a group of friends - you could even make it into a competition and good news: the dish burden is so minimal. Have fun, eat well, and be safe.

2017 Goals + Hopes + Wishes

I've mentioned before how much I don't like setting goals for the New Year. I mean official goals. There are definitely things that I hope I will/plan to do but those goals seem a little shy of fame. The minute I say them aloud, they're gone and with them, the inspiration behind them and since there are some exciting goals I really hope to accomplish, I don't want to scare them off with an introduction. I trust I'm not the only one to experience this phenomenon! But hey, we're just a couple days shy of being a baby new year and 2017 wants to say hey so I will share some food-goals for the coming year! Trends, products, recipes, and restaurants I want to try in the next twelve months.

paella - okay, I somehow totally lunched (the puns...) on my plans to make this during the summer. I had a day scheduled with a friend and a whole lot of romantic ideas about how chic it would be to turn out a huge pan of paella. And then something came up and the whole thing disbanded. Not so this year. I will save my pennies. I will buy little seafoody things. I will make paella. And I will post about it.

ramen - in the same vein of Things I Mean To Try In 2016 But Didn't is ramen! There is a highly-rated restaurant in Norfolk which has become one of those places we say, "Hey, let's go there next time" and never do. I plan to visit this place. And then I plan to perfect the art of ramen-making at home. Because the packet stuff gives you cancer and yet - the flavor.

rummage around the produce section more - okay, so I guess this is technically more like an experience, but I want to more frequently make the forty minute trek to the one grocery store nearby that actually sells, ya know, something other than pale, blenching celery and dispirited gala apples. The more fun things I find, the more fun I have in the kitchen. And that's always awesome.

learn how to talk to a butcher or fish-monger - technically I've helped "process" quite a few turkeys and chickens over the years. Even a rabbit. Even overseen a few deer. And I'm awesome at talking to myself, but that's not what I mean. Likewise, my dad raises two pigs a year and butchers them himself but that's also what I do not mean. I mean that beefy (ha. another pun) guy with the hair net and the ponderous jowls who stands behind the counter at Whole Foods and dares you to call a sirloin steak a T-bone. Look, I don't often order fancy or rare cuts. But I want to learn how.

learn to chop like a pro - I hate how long veggie prep time takes. I mean, I could chop fast but you can only lose so many fingers before starting to take precautions like, I dunno, lessons?

plant an herb garden - I did this in 2016. It was sprayed with round-up by the butcher I mentioned above. He felt bad about it, but that was the end of the herb garden because I got super busy. I love using fresh herbs in dressings, salads, recipes, etc. but I do get tired of buying stupid packets of basil when you could have a BUSH of it if the fam would remember these are herbs and not weeds in need of being slain.

master ice-cream making - I'm writing this before Christmas and put "ice cream maker" on my list, so obviously by the time this post goes live, maybe I'll have one. Regardless, I can't wait to make a ton of vegan, paleo, and full force cream-and-sugar normal ice creams and sorbets this year! One of those people who totally believes ice cream is a year-round commitment and shouldn't be relegated to summertime.

join the Richmond food scene - with the VA state capitol being only an hour and a half from where I live, the city's many amazing restaurants, bakeries, and coffee shops are a fresh new field I can't wait to continue exploring. Specifically excited about Charm School, a brand new innovative ice cream "restaurant"!

give Lipstick & Gelato a facelift - I'm so excited to be pairing up with a designer during the next month or so to give L&G a complete makeover! The new look will be accessible, organized, classy, and clean. I can't wait.

What are some of your goals for 2017? 

Chamomile Honey Almond Cake

Tell me if it's weird to adore a series of books written for children and to create recipes indirectly inspired by them. Actually, don't tell me. I don't care. I mean, if you're that stodgy kind of person who thinks that children's books are just for children, then okay. You can just skip this post entirely because lets be real: you can't talk about Winnie-the-Pooh without talking about honey. And you can't talk about honey without talking about bees and once you get me started on honeybees you'll probably wish I'd just shut up. Yes, the honeybee obsession continues in good health, thank you. How's your hive life?

“The keeping of bees is like the direction of sunbeams.” - Henry David Thoreau

Ah, sunbeams. Winter, much as I love it, seems to be long on darkness, short on sunshine. And nothing says warmth and sunshine like a slice of honey cake. More dessert recipes. Gee, thanks, Rachel. We only just got over the Christmas indulgences. Personally I was too busy this holiday season to go to many parties – actually, I was only invited to two parties...which I missed – which meant I didn't have the chance to totally wear myself out on everyone's amazing baked goods and decadent fudge. You have more of a conscience when you have to make whatever you're splurging on and buy the ingredients too. That being said, I enter the new year not entirely sick to death of sweets. Still, January is that conscientious month of the year. Yay, everybody, renew that gym membership. In honor of the sunshine shortage and all of you who are trying to detox from the holiday excess, I created this gluten free chamomile honey almond cake. To give it...well...flowers for lack of a better term (and an added “relaxed summer vibe") I quickly infused the honey with chamomile by melting it over a double-boiler and steeping the contents of two chamomile tea bags in the honey for ten or fifteen minutes. You can infuse raw honey with herbs/spices without heating it but it takes about two weeks of playing “snow globe” with a jar and I'm totally not one of those plan-ahead people which is probably why every recipe for the last month has been some kind of dessert. Cravings + common on-hand ingredients = dessert. Anyway, back to the raw honey. Since the honey was to be baked in a cake anyway, going the quick method was not a problem. I started with the gluten free honey-almond cake from Cookie & Kate and took seven hundred liberties with the recipe to turn it into something a health-conscious Kanga might break out on Roo's bday with everybody in the Hundred Acre Wood.

This moist cake (which I've dubbed “the honeybee” - you're welcs) is hefty, floral, and a bit dense. Not dense in a discouraging, “failed to rise” way but in a substantial, “I can be eaten for breakfast” way.” If a muffin and a cake had a love-child, she might look like this. And really, who would pass up a chance to eat cake for breakfast? Encased in delightful coconut cream “frosting” and dusted with bee pollen, this cake will have you entering January feeling fab. Look at you, Queen Bee.

Honey Bee Cake (Gluten Free Honey Almond Cake)

4 cups finely ground almond flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon sea salt
6 eggs, beaten
2/3 cup chamomile-infused honey*
1/2 cup coconut oil, melted
1 Tablespoon regular honey
Juice of one lemon
1 13-oz. can full-fat coconut milk, chilled
½ teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon honey
1/8 teaspoon sea salt
bee pollen for garnish

  1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Grease two 9” round pans with coconut oil and “flour” with almond meal. Set aside.
  2. Whisk together dry ingredients in a medium-sized bowl and set aside.
  3. Beat eggs, then slowly drizzle in infused honey. Whisk in melted coconut oil. Add dry ingredients to wet and beat together with a few swift strokes until just combined.
  4. Divide evenly into cake pans and smooth top with spatula. Bake for 20-25 minutes or until golden brown. Tops should spring back lightly when touched.
  5. Allow to cool slightly before flipping out of pans.
  6. In a double-boiler, warm honey and lemon juice until combined. Brush over-top cake layers.
  7. For frosting: take coconut milk from fridge and scoop out separated cream. Save remaining “water” for use in smoothies or another recipe. With a whisk attachment on your mixer, beat coconut cream until light and fluffy. Add honey, vanilla, and sea salt. Beat another 3-4 minutes.
  8. Assemble the cake by icing between layers. If you'd like a thicker, more traditional frosting double the frosting ingredients. Otherwise, ice “naked” on the sides and treat yo'self on the top! Garnish with drizzled honey and bee pollen.
  • To infuse honey by the “quick method,” heat 2/3 cup honey in a double boiler on the stove. Empty contents of two chamomile teabags into the honey and all to simmer and steep over heat for 10-15 minutes. Strain, discarding chamomile. Proceed to recipe.

That's it! I hope this mid-week between Christmas and New Years is full of rest, fun, and plenty of thin, diffused winter sunlight. 2017 or bust!

A French Woman Never Eats Alone

I once read that a French woman will never eat by herself. It is part of an unspoken national creed to never eat a meal alone. For food, at its heart, is an experience which deserves adequate time to be savored, deserves to be shared between at least two people every time. Funny, then, how eating alone in a French cafe across from a French woman provided me one of the happiest food-memories from this year.

The evening had grown dark early when I toppled into Charleston's Gaulart & Maliclet as a last resort. A Cynthia Rowley store clerk had recommended a particular French restaurant to me when she heard that I would be exploring Charleston by myself for the evening. I trust I am not the only one for whom foreign names do not stick the first time they are heard. By the time I had stepped out of Cynthia Rowley I had already forgotten the name of the French restaurant the friendly woman had pointed out. Thus, two hours later I was exhausted from my seven hour drive, dizzy and fairly dehydrated, standing on the chilly street-corner googling "french restaurants" in the darkness. On a list of my favorite things I've done alone, last-ditch effort restaurant googling isn't one of them. Yet even in my moment of faintness, I was determined to not trot the few blocks to a Five Guys Burgers. I'd come this far. I would not turn back yet.

I noticed "Suzanne" and her handsome son as the hostess led me to a high, community-seating table at the back of the room. Suzanne, tall and thin, graceful and well-bred, sat with perfect posture on the tall chair. Her son wore a Ralph Lauren button-up shirt. They both sat across from me at the narrow table which resulted in my face being approximately eighteen inches across from their faces. In my faint state, I coveted the young man's dewy glass of ice water. How socially promiscuous would it be to grab his glass and drain it? I breathed slow and deeply and balanced my senses, hands spread on the tabletop. It was then Suzanne and her son took notice of me, smiling with that polite brand of geniality belonging to the exceptionally well-bred. Now, you can reasonably avoid talking to a stranger when they're seated a normal distance away from you. Eye contact can be withheld. Conversation can be averted. But no matter how faint you feel, no matter how hard you try, there is no getting out of talking to someone whose face is only a couple of hand-breadths away from your own. Believe me - I tried. And if you think striking up conversation with a stranger + handsome son is awkward, having tried to avoid it and then struck up conversation is about three hundred times more awkward. Save yourself: just go for it. In the end, it was Suzanne herself who extended the hand of friendship. Catching the end of the waiter's question to me, she smiled and said in pretty English:
"You should try the cucumber-yogurt, if you like a cold soup."
I grasped at her suggestion like a life-line and clung to it. "Yes, the cucumber-yogurt soup, please." Why was I ordering cucumber soup? Just because a refined French woman told me to? Yes. Yes, that's precisely why. Withhold your judgement, please.

After Suzanne chipped away the social glass wall between us, she and her son proved to me pleasant dinner companions.
"I do not know if you've noticed," she said with a smile, "but I am from France. We come here a lot." She told me about the weather in Lille. Her son chatted Charleston sites, helpful apps, and where he went to college.
"Have you been to Paris?" Suzanne inquired.
"Never - it's on my list."
"Everyone should go to Paris at least once in their life."
I smiled and scooped a spoonful of my cold soup. "It is definitely on my list."
"So are you a fan of French food?" her son asked.
I now spoke the stupidest sentence I hope to ever parent: "I'm just a fan of food in general. I'm a food blogger and recipe developer."
By the time the words had left my lips, I regretted them. The mental wooliness had not passed, evidently. The son's warm hazel eyes laughed at me, but he politely responded to the comment and turned the conversation elsewhere.
"If you're still hungry for dessert," the son suggested as they rose to leave, "they make an amazing chocolate mousse here. I hope you have a good time here."

He and Suzanne drifted behind me out of the restaurant and I was again alone. Or not. I had only been by myself for a few moments when "Emily" offered a smile. She and her companions made three: a softly curved, confident woman and two men, one a lumberjack; the other, her brother, on the sliding edge of drunk already. Just intoxicated enough to make each comment too loud, each laugh a lengthy challenge to sober reason. He giggled now and poured another glass of wine.
Emily fingered the stem of her glass and raised her chin, entering on a point of conversation the waiter had just placed before me: the storied chocolate mousse.
"I don't understand how you can eat that without a glass of wine."
"I've got to drive, that's how." The faintness had begun to ebb, pushed away by a second glass of ice water and the shrimp toasts, slapped into reality by the dark, silky mousse.
Emily pushed her full bottom lip out in sympathy. "Too bad!"
We chatted a bit - I told her I was new to Charleston. She and the lumberjack asked where I was staying and suggested a location with several good bars not far from my Airbnb. Not that I wanted them, but it was an overture of friendship and I received the information with a good will. The lumberjack sounded to be from Australia. He and Emily, very much in love, held hands and shared wine while quizzing me about my plans.
"If you're wanting to see the historical homes," said the lumberjack, drawing the words out and chewing them with his accent, "most of the good ones are North of Broad. Start at the Battery and come South - you can't miss 'em."
They ordered another bottle of wine. The brother's eyes became blearier, his giggles more audible. Emily's attention swirled back to her boyfriend, and our acquaintance drowsed to an end. I paid my ticket, pulled on my coat. Emily gave me a loud, friendly goodbye echoed by her lumberjack boyfriend and her intoxicated, bleary-eyed brother.

I felt bolstered after my meal and not just by the food and water. Before stepping into the gas-lit doorway of Gaulart & Maliclet, I had been a very lone stranger in a very new city. By the time I left, I had been embraced by the culture of Charleston and the north of France, by the friendship of an Australian man and a lively woman. Never eat alone? But eating alone is what gained me these friends in the first place. And then I realized the perfection of the custom - the French so hate to eat alone that even their restaurants where a solo traveler like myself might take refuge defy solitude. You might be a party of one, but you'll not eat alone.
I stepped into the cobbled street. My head had cleared. A brisk wind blew in from the nearby sea. I liked the French custom. I liked Charleston. I even, for the moment, liked traveling alone.

3 Paleo Christmas Treats!

When you're a bit of a food snob, there is this sense when you try people's "healthy alternatives" that the world has gone awry and those cooks are just a lot of annoying people. I realize of course that this is an untrue and unfair judgement but a girl deprived of her chocolate isn't chalked up on the list of Most Patient Creatures. But then, ah - THEN - someone who actually knows their business walks up and hands you a plate of goodness and, after you'd tried and loved said goodness, admits they're sort of kind of maybe paleo.


Paleo. Ish. Enter my dear friend and resident whole food/paleo mama, Joanna Waldner. You will have heard about her family's iconic sweet tea back in this post and will perhaps have encountered her in various, "my friend made this delicious thing here and isn't she the best?" posts on Instagram. And recently she touched down in my kitchen for a jam-sess, paleo baking style, with recipes inspired by those found in Danielle Walker's (Against All Grain) "Celebrations" cookbook. On the menu today?

 - grain-free gingerbread men -
- chocolate almond butter fudge -
- peanut butter buckeyes -


We turned on Christmas music, supplied Joanna's disgruntled one year old with enough hand-painted gingerbread trees to last for days, and got to work. In a few hours (punctuated by a never-ending stack of dishes and talk about grilled cheese and fashion and fellows), we had enough silky fudge, adorable buckeyes, and snappy gingerbread cookies to feed a small army of health-conscious nutcrackers. I eagerly taste-tested (multiple times) all the finished products. Guys. The fudge tastes like the solidified embodiment of your dream brownie-batter flavor, courtesy of way too much unsweetened baking chocolate and decadent almond butter which we swapped in for cashew butter.
"This doesn't call for enough salt. I'm not a believer in that," Joanna said, reaching for my salt grinder. A moment later, "It also doesn't call for vanilla. I'm not a believer in that either." In went a dash of vanilla extract.
We chucked minced up candied ginger into the cookie batter and blithely flouted the suggestion of lessening the amounts of butter. We replaced all the suggested arrowroot with tapioca starch and essentially made the recipes our own: maybe slightly less paleo, maybe more incredibly delicious. All I'm saying is, make these recipes. Make one of them or all of them and feed them to your friends and thrive in the knowledge that you're basically eating salad. 

Almond Butter "Brownie Batter" Christmas Fudge
(makes about 60 pieces)

1 cup pure maple syrup
1/2 cup coconut sugar
1/4 cup expeller-pressed coconut oil
1 cup raw almond butter
6 Tablespoons tapioca starch (or arrowroot powder)
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
12 ounces unsweetened baking chocolate, chopped 
  1. Line a 9x13 pan with parchment paper, leaving paper ends hanging over the side. Set aside
  2. On stovetop, melt coconut oil, coconut sugar, and maple syrup together, about five minutes or until the sugar is dissolved. Mix in almond butter, sea salt, and baking chocolate. Melt together, then gradually add in tapioca starch. Mix until smooth and well-blended. Remove from heat and add vanilla
  3. Pour into prepared pan, smooth with spatula, then set in fridge at least two hours. To cut, lift fudge from pan by paper ends, and chop into 1" squares. Store in air-tight container in fridge for up to two weeks.

Peanut Butter Buckeyes
(makes about 18 pieces)

3/4 cups unsweetened peanut butter
3 Tablespoons coconut flour
2 Tablespoons tapioca starch
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
 - chocolate shell -
1/3 cup expeller-pressed coconut oil
2 1/2 Tablespoons maple syrup
1/3 cup plus one Tablespoon cocoa powder
pinch of fine sea salt
1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  1. Combine together first five ingredients. Roll into 1/2" in diameter balls, then place on parchment-lined pan and chill in freezer for 20-30 minutes.
  2. Meanwhile, combine ingredients for chocolate shell in a glass bowl set over a pan of warm water. Stir until smooth and glossy, then remove from heat. Allow to cool slightly.
  3. Take peanut butter balls from freezer and dip into chocolate by stabbing with a toothpick and twirling in melted chocolate. Chill in freezer till the chocolate is set, then store in the freezer or fridge until serving time.

Grain-Free Gingerbread
(makes about two dozen cookies, or one house)

3 cups blanched, superfine almond flour
3/4 cups tapioca starch
1 Tablespoon coconut flour
1 Tablespoon ground cinnamon
1 Tablespoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup coconut sugar
1/2 cup blackstrap molasses (or maple syrup if you want to be fully paleo)
1 large egg
1/4 cup crystallized ginger, minced fine
  1. Beat together sugar, butter, and molasses till fluffy. Add egg and beat again.
  2. In a second bowl, sift together dry ingredients. Add gradually to butter mixture. Bring into a ball with hands, then cover and chill in fridge 2 hours or overnight.
  3. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Between sheets of parchment paper, roll cookie dough into 1/4" thickness. Cut whatever shapes desired. Return unused dough to fridge to chill.
  4. Bake on parchment-lined pans for 9-12 minutes, until golden and fragrant. Allow to cool on wire rack. Repeat with remaining dough. 

How To Have A Perfect Christmas Season

"Here we are as in olden days, happy golden days of yore. Faithful friends who are dear to us gather near to us once more."
Maybe my favorite part of the entire Christmas season is the way it brings you from over here and those people from over there and cups everyone in a hand of warmth and laughter. Everyone notices the cessation of the normal petty annoyances. Maybe society is given a larger measure of patience than usual and a wider scope of who one considers family. I mean, everyone is so nice and jolly and just dickensian for once in the year. Either way, I am grateful. From extra guests at Thanksgiving to friends trekking back and forth from Florida; from people I love huddled around a hasty meal to dear friends crowding a bonfire to flip gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches, I am grateful. From a gal driving an hour in monsoon-like weather to build gingerbread houses with me to researching how Christmas is celebrated wherever a child's fingertip lands on the globe, I'm eating it up and trying to gather these moments forever. I want to be able to bring out a host of warm, pulsing memories every year as I bring out the ornaments that will one day hang on my own tree in my own home: the little bear, the pine-needle heart, the plastic hedge-hog, the blown-glass garlic clove and carrot and wrinkled walnut, and painted eggs.

We seem to have this weird preoccupation with creating perfection in during Christmas. But think about Bethlehem for a moment. Nothing about that first, holy night was perfect except the baby lying in the rough-hewn, straw-filled manger. Except the adoration of the people crowded into the stable. So much of the time one can manage to waste all the joy of Christmas in trying to perfect things - the cookie icing, the guest list, the seating arrangements, the gift wrap; things that never reach perfection except at the expense of more important things. But you know what feels pretty near perfect to me? Falling asleep while watching Elf with my family. Covering up fallen-asleep friends with a plush blanket. Rolling back the sunroof of my car to watch stars. Making homemade marshmallows with a friend, or eating gelato while haunting a Christmas tree lot. Sitting by a bonfire long after all the handy words have been said, just watching the coals and feeling how alive we are. Debating the point, hand-washing dishes, sharing food, scaring each other in the dark. Saying goodbye at an airport, crushing into a hug all the final things you don't verbalize. Slapping royal icing on a collapsing gingerbread house and wondering where the other half of the roof got to. Stirring the umpteenth cup of cocoa on the stove and watching a marshmallow send a silky sheen over the liquid. Listening to a piping, juvenile voice sing the words to an old Christmas hymn. Coloring slowly, savoring the way the pencils slide across to fill the white voids.

More things. More and more beautiful, joyful things. Walking instead of driving. Secrets. Eating too much of the leftover candy. Coming home to fresh-baked cookies. Saying "Merry Christmas," to everyone you meet and learning how to say it in other languages in case you run out of English. Finding out the tiny little stockings at the coffee shop are free, or that the shop lady is willing to find a tiny box - just the right size - and wrap it in beautiful red paper with a pert white bow. This is the perfection of Christmas: being together with each other, being together with God. Emmanuel: God with us. Rest in that joy. Rest in that perfection. And your Christmas will be perfect.