Christmas sandwich

What do you do if you like Christmas well enough, but just can’t be bothered to make a whole elaborate Christmas dinner? Or what if you have to travel or go to work on Christmas day and can only bring a sandwich lunch? Today’s post is the answer – you make a Christmas sandwich!

This recipe was inspired by a product, Vantastic Foods soy protein, that I got from Vegami (formerly Un Monde Vegan) in Paris as part of my partnership with them. When I saw the package on the shelf, I wondered how soy protein could be made into a Christmas dish. The photo on the package seemed to suggest a sandwich was the way to go. Could there be such a thing as a Christmas sandwich? I asked myself. Challenge accepted!

Next, I had to figure out what kinds of “Christmasy” ingredients could go together with this soy protein in a sandwich. Cranberry sauce came to mind, and cheese… in the end, this became a fusion dish, with the cranberry sauce we North Americans are so fond of, plus French camembert-style cashew cheese, the kind with a rind (I used L’Affiné de Margot by Les Nouveaux Affineurs) and of course the quintessentially French baguette. I added bitter greens to offset the sweetness of the cranberry sauce. Incidentally, this sandwich idea is what inspired my most recent recipe: homemade cranberry sauce made from dried cranberries, for people living in places without fresh/frozen whole cranberries.

If you don’t have time to make cranberry sauce, you can substitute IKEA’s lingonberry jam.

Christmas sandwich

Makes two sandwiches.

  • 1 baguette or submarine sandwich bread
  • 1½ cup dry soy protein or 9 oz (250 g) seitan (I recommend Lima Gourmet Grill)
  • 1 recipe hatcho miso gravy (see below)
  • 4.5 oz (120 g) vegan camembert-style cheese with rind
  • 1/2 cup (118 ml) cranberry sauce or lingonberry jam
  • Handful arugula or other bitter greens

Hatcho miso gravy

Makes about 2 cups (473 ml) of gravy.

  • 1/4 cup flour
  • 2 tablespoons nutritional yeast
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
  • 2 cups (473 ml) vegetable broth
  • 2 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • 1 tablespoon hatcho miso paste (strong/dark miso)

Start by soaking the soy protein chunks in hot water in a small bowl. Cover the bowl and let sit for at least 10 minutes.

Make the gravy. Toast the flour, nutritional yeast, garlic powder and pepper in a dry saucepan for a few minutes on medium heat. Then add the broth slowly, whisking constantly, until incorporated. Now whisk in the soy sauce and mustard. Reduce heat to low and simmer until thick.

Dilute the hatcho miso in a small amount (maybe 1/3 to 1/2 cup) of hot water, stirring and breaking the miso up with a spoon. Some of the miso will settle at the bottom of your bowl so stir thoroughly to get it all.

By now the soy protein should be fully hydrated. Drain and squeeze out the excess water with your hands once the soy protein has cooled enough. Add the miso mixture to the gravy and combine the soy protein and gravy in a skillet. Simmer for another 10 minutes or so until the soy protein has absorbed the gravy.

Cut two lengths of baguette, one for each sandwich. Slice the bread lengthwise and cover with a layer of the soy protein in gravy.

Slice the cheese lengthwise. You’ll need about three slices for each sandwich.

Cover with the slices of cheese, which will melt a little.

Add some cranberry sauce on top of the cheese.

Finally, top the cranberry sauce with the bitter greens.

And here’s your yummy Christmas sandwich!

Cranberry sauce for expats

When the holiday season comes around, Americans and Canadians living abroad often find themselves with a dilemma: cranberry sauce, or even just the (whole, uncooked) cranberries you would need to make your own sauce from scratch, cannot be found in every country. And cranberry sauce is a cornerstone of Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners. So this is a truly serious (first-world) problem. 😉

Of course, there are sometimes ways to get imported cranberry sauce from local stores specializing in North American foods. But this option is always expensive, and you might not be able to get to the store if it’s remote or has limited opening hours, or if you don’t live in a major city.

Having lived in France for over 12 years now, I’ve missed having cranberry sauce over the holidays many a time. But this year, I decided to try an idea that popped into my head: why not make a sauce from dried cranberries, which are abundantly available here in Paris at organic and now even mainstream grocery stores? To extend the tart, fruity flavor, I added some lingonberry jam (from IKEA), which has a similar flavor as cranberry, but any red jam will do. Finally, I mixed in some red wine, spices, orange juice and zest and fresh grated ginger.

I gave it a shot yesterday and was very pleased by the results. Read on for the recipe!

Cranberry sauce

Makes a little over 1 cup (236 ml) of sauce.

  • 1 cup dried cranberries
  • 1/2 cup (118 ml) water
  • 1/4 cup (60 ml) orange juice
  • 1/4 cup (60 ml) inexpensive red wine
  • 2 tablespoons red jam (raspberry, strawberry etc.)
  • 1 teaspoon grated orange zest
  • 1/2 teaspoon grated ginger root, or more to taste
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • small pinch salt

Grate your orange(s), squeeze to obtain the juice, and grate your ginger root (remove the skin with a spoon). Roughly chop the dried cranberries – or alternatively, process the sauce at the end to make it smoother – and add these to a medium-sized saucepan along with all the other ingredients.

Stir all the ingredients together while heating over medium heat. When the mixture is just starting to boil, reduce heat to low and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the sauce has thickened (maybe 5 to 10 minutes). Taste and adjust the ingredients as necessary – you may wish to add sugar or mix in more jam if it’s too tart.

As the sauce cools it will thicken further (above, the sauce just after taking it off the heat). Allow to cool fully, then transfer to a serving dish or storage container for the fridge if you won’t be using it right away.

Serve chilled or room-temperature as a condiment for your favorite holiday dishes (lentil Wellington, Tofurkey roast, stuffing and green beans or mashed potatoes with gravy).

You might also like to try it in a dessert, in a mixed-fruit turnover or an apple crumble, topped with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream.

Variations: Add additional spices (nutmeg, allspice, cloves) and other dried fruit such as apricot or fig. To make it into a savory chutney to serve with cheese and baguettes, add some sautéed shallot and a dash of tamari.

DIY Advent calendar

We’re just past the middle of November, and Christmas decorations are already popping up everywhere. You’ll have seen Advent calendars in stores too – the ones that consist of opening up a new piece of candy or some other small surprise every day of December until Christmas. They’re fun, yet predictable since you know more or less what you’re getting before you open them.

So what can you do if you’re tired of them, don’t want to ingest so much sugar, or are a minimalist? You can make your own customized Advent calendar that will bring a smile to someone’s face and warm their heart – an Avent calendar that’s more about giving than receiving.

This is something I did once in the past with a partner, and it was a really fun experience. This project is ideal for two people living together, but at the end I’ll talk about ways it can be customized for families, groups of three or more, or even a single person.

Advent calendar for two people living together: Each person separately writes 24 or 25 uplifting little messages to the other consisting of a compliment, a love note, a drawing, an inside joke or reference that’s special just for the two of you, a “gift certificate” for something like a massage, a dinner or a free pass on a household chore, making sure that the recipient cannot see what they are writing or drawing. Each person should use a separate, easily identifiable type of paper – different colors or one with lines, one without – so it’s clear who wrote which ones (in this post, the notes shown are example ones that I created to give you an idea, so they’re on just one type of paper). Each should then fold up their notes into a small size.

Then you’ll need something to contain the notes. Above is an Advent calendar I originally got from Ara Chocolat in Paris a few Christmases ago (the one they have this year is different). It came with a piece of chocolate inside each of the striped boxes, which could be removed from the cardboard tree. I was glad I saved the calendar after the chocolate was gone, because the little boxes were also the perfect size to hold two little notes.

Another idea is to get a large poster board and attach little paper pockets to it, with a number on each one (remember doing this kind of thing in elementary school?). Small envelopes would also serve this purpose well. Alternatively, tape the envelopes directly to the wall if you have the right kind of (non-damageable) wall surface. And the most minimalist solution of all would be to have each person write numbers from 1 to 24 right onto their folded messages.

Mix up each separate collection of notes so they aren’t in any particular order. Put one note from each person into each box or pocket/envelope.

Below are some example messages.

Then, every day of December, either in the morning after breakfast or some other time when you’re usually together, each of you opens the message written by the other and you get to watch each other’s reaction. It’s a lot of fun!

Other ideas:

  • Treasure hunt: On one or more of the days, send your partner hunting through your house for a small gift using easy or cryptic clues that take them from one spot to another until they finally find it. This requires some advance planning and preparation, but you could for example get up early in the morning and plant all the clues before your partner gets out of bed.
  • Appreciation messages collected over the year. This one takes a lot more advance planning and requires keeping the project in mind over time, but it’s well worthwhile. Over the course of the year, whenever you feel especially appreciative of your partner (if they’ve showed special kindness or support to you or someone else, or just for no special reason), take a few minutes to write down what you feel or describe what happened and how much you appreciated them. Then put that note into a jar or box and take them out at the end of November to use as December Advent calendar messages (if you don’t have 24, or if both partners don’t have the same number, it’s okay). Alternatively, you could bundle together your notes from the year and present them to your partner all at once, for Christmas or any other time of year. Little notes like these can create a great deal of closeness and are an opportunity to share and strengthen your love. Opening one after a fight could be helpful in coming back together and forgiving each other.
  • Advent calendar for a family or group of roommates/flatmates: Here you could opt to focus more on giving the gift of services (offering to do a chore in someone’s place) or covering small household expenses (you pay for the next container of laundry detergent). You could also write about a memorable experience that the whole group had together or just express your appreciation for the family or group.
  • Advent calendar for your child: If they’re old enough to understand, write notes about favorite shared memories or times when the child did something they could be proud of (showing kindness to a classmate, sharing their toys). Or tell them things that are great about them, being careful to stress personal qualities, or just that they are themselves, rather than mentioning achievements, looks or other external things. Older children could be encouraged to join in making heart-warming notes for their siblings and/or you or their grandparents.
  • Advent calendar for yourself: Spend some time in November remembering times when you accomplished something impressive or when you were just proud of yourself, and write notes to yourself about them. Alternatively, note down small goals you want to accomplish in the month of December or small treats you would like to indulge in. By mixing up the notes, you’ll be drawing one at random each day and can feel like destiny has selected that day for you to indulge in the treat! (and who are you to question destiny?)
  • Advent calendar for two people not living together: Same as for the first calendar described above, except that each person takes all of the other person’s messages at once and has to promise not to peek at any of them early. They can be kept together in an envelope or jar and pulled out at random. You can call each other every morning at a certain time and share your reactions in real time, or take a photo of the message you open each day and send it to the giver along with your thoughts.

Have you ever tried something like this, or do you have suggestions for other ways to vary the Advent calendar experience? Share in the comments!

Norwegian Christmas rice porridge

A few years ago, I happened to spend Christmas in the company of a Norwegian friend and got to experience a traditional dish commonly served the morning of December 24th in homes across his northerly homeland. The memory of its subtle sweetness and warming heartiness has stayed with me and this year, I decided to make it here in Paris. And to share it with you! Get ready to experience risengrynsgrøt (rice porridge).

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The rising sun announces a cold new day in Stavanger.

This vegan version of the grøt (porridge) is very easy to make, composed of a just a few ingredients. And if you use rice milk, which is naturally sweet, there’s no need to add any sugar.

In preparing my own recipe, I drew inspiration from basic rice pudding recipes and also this Norwegian vegan risengrynsgrøt recipe. Some versions call for other milks, including full-fat canned coconut milk, but I found that rice milk thickened up nicely enough.

Risengrynsgrøt is traditionally served with husholdningssaft, a juice made from apples, grapes and cherries. Personally though, I dislike pairing sweet dishes with sweet beverages. And since I’m not Norwegian myself, I decided to flout tradition and have it with coffee.

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Some Julenisser (Nordic Christmas elves), disappointed in me for not drinking husholdningssaft.

husholdningssaftMy Norwegian friend later assured me that it was okay to have coffee too (emphasis his). I promised to have some berry juice later in the day to make up for it, but he only sighed and shook his head in dismay.

A word of caution about cinnamon:

There are two types, Cassia and Ceylon. Cassia, the most common kind due to its lower cost, can cause stomach pains and more serious problems if consumed in higher doses (1 teaspoon or more per person, per day) due to the coumarin it contains. So although cinnamon is yummy, be careful not to overdo it if you suspect yours is the Cassia variety.

Norwegian Christmas rice porridge

Makes about 3 cups (2 to 3 hearty servings)

  • 1 cup (200 g) short-grain rice
  • 3½ cups (830 ml) rice milk or rice milk blend
  • pinch salt
  • 1 cinnamon stick (optional, preferably the Ceylon variety)
  • 1 teaspoon margarine or vegan butter
  • ground cinnamon (preferably the Ceylon variety)

The rice you want for this recipe is the short-grain type, the kind used to make risotto. For the liquid, I recommend rice milk because it is naturally sweet (I used a rice and coconut milk blend). But you can substitute another plant-based milk and add a bit of sugar if needed.

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Combine the rice, milk, pinch of salt and cinnamon stick in a saucepan. Cover and bring to a boil over high heat. Once it is boiling, turn the heat down to low and simmer (still covered) for 15-20 minutes until the rice is soft. During this time, stay close, stirring occasionally and ensuring that the mixture doesn’t boil over.

When the rice is done, taste it to see if you want to add some sugar. Remove the cinnamon stick (tip: save it to make pot-pourri with later).

Serve the rice porridge in cereal bowls. Place a pat of margarine or vegan butter in the center of each bowl and sprinkle the top with a small amount of ground cinnamon (see my word of caution about cinnamon above). When the margarine has melted, stir it into the porridge to combine.

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Enjoy!

If reheating leftover rice porridge, mix in some extra milk while stirring to achieve a creamy texture again.

Variations: add diced raw apple, raisins or dried cranberries to the rice near the end of the cooking process. Dust some sugar and/or gomasio over the top if you like.

Sunrise and Julenisser photos courtesy of Jon Helge Hesby

Where to find ingredients…

Short-grain rice: most general grocery stores offer this type of rice, labeled variously as risotto rice, arborio rice or sushi rice. In France, riz rond is what you want.

Ceylon cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum or true cinnamon): check at high-end or specialty shops, or look online. Note that Saigon or Vietnamese cinnamon (Cinnamomum loureiroi) is closely related to the Cassia variety (Cinnamomum cassia) and therefore should probably also be consumed only in small quantities.

Vegan butter: make it yourself with this recipe, or, in North America, look for Miyoko’s amazing European-style cultured vegan butter.


Don’t miss my other Christmas posts!

A very vintage Christmas

Like me, you may enjoy coming together with family or friends after Christmas dinner to watch a beloved holiday classic. A Miracle on 34th Street, A Christmas Carol, It’s a Wonderful Life, Charlie Brown’s Christmas, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and A Child’s Christmas in Wales… there are so many good ones. But what if Christmas seems to be coming around oftener and oftener, and you’ve seen all of these too many times?

In recent years, I’ve discovered a few “new” (to me) vintage Christmas gems. Nobody seems to ever talk about these, but they’re just as good as the more popular classics. At the very least, they offer something a bit different and prolong the black & white charm. I now present them to you, personally tested and approved, in order of release date.

The Shop Around the Corner (1940)

The_Shop_Around_the_Corner_-_1940-_PosterThose of you who love It’s a Wonderful Life won’t want to miss Ernst Lubitsch’s very cute romantic comedy starring a younger Jimmy Stewart.

An aspiring salesman in a Budapest leathergoods shop, Alfred Kralik (Stewart) must contend with the arrival of a maddeningly headstrong new shop assistant, Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan). But at the same time, his love life is looking rosy as he begins exchanging anonymous letters with an intriguing woman encountered through a personal ad in the newspaper. As the story progresses, we learn that Miss Novak, who has taken a strong dislike to Mr. Kralik, is also writing to a secret anonymous correspondent of her own… Can you guess where this is going? Also, if this sounds a bit familiar, you may be thinking of Nora Ephron’s 1998 You’ve Got Mail, an adaptation of the same story with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in the lead roles writing to each other anonymously via some primitive form of email.

Although I liked You’ve Got Mail well enough when it first came out (unaware at the time of this earlier version), perhaps impressed by their use of that newfangled technology, “electronic mail” (!), I now much prefer The Shop Around the Corner. The tight focus on the shop interactions allows us to closely follow the character development and evolving relationships among the staff. Stewart’s endearingly awkward character and the fiery arguments he has with his nemesis/love interest Klara are endlessly fun. I also love that the screenwriters kept the story’s original Budapest setting, including the characters’ Hungarian names, references to the local currency and Hungarian-language text in the shop’s signage. Why must everything always be transposed to an American setting? The world is full of other countries.

Much like in It’s a Wonderful Life, the Christmas season doesn’t make an appearance until a later part of the story. But any inclusion of Christmas during a film is enough to make it officially a Christmas one, I say. 😉

Christmas in Connecticut (1945)

Christmasinconnecticut.jpgDecades before smartphones were even imagined, Elizabeth Lane (Barbara Stanwyck) has created an Instagram-perfect fake image of her life in the housekeeping column she wrote for a women’s magazine.

Unmarried, childless, living in a city apartment and unable to cook, she writes about the sprawling Connecticut farm she shares with her husband and their baby and the lavish meals she cooks there. Readers of the magazine eat it up and demand more and more. Things are going pretty well for Elizabeth, who is even making enough money to buy a mink coat (which EVERY woman from the 1940s to the 60s seems unfailingly to want).

Until the day when an imbroglio involving her boss, an unrefusable Christmas request, her longtime suitor and a dashing war veteran forces her to confront the falseness of the story she has woven and she must find a way to make the fiction become real…

Christmas in Connecticut is much more of a madcap, implausible story than The Shop Around the Corner, but still delivers on nostalgia and a certain kind of old-fashioned humor.

The Apartment (1960)

7de6e62fe936603612691a5a77f7d3e3The most modern of the black and white films I’m presenting here, both in its year of production and the content it presents, The Apartment is a cute and rather sweet story that happens to take place around Christmastime.

C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) plays a put-upon insurance company employee who has begun lending his apartment to his bosses for their dalliances with mistresses and doesn’t know how to get out of the situation. Dangling the prospect of a promotion in front of his eyes, they occupy his home every evening, leaving him to stand outside in the cold or work extra (unpaid) hours after everyone else has left. Meanwhile, his neighbors grow increasingly impatient with the constant parties and nonstop parade of different young women through the building. Baxter can only sigh and promise them to be more quiet as he frets over how to extricate himself from the mess, which could also spell the end of his job if the big boss ever finds out.

At work, Baxter has grown fond of a sarcastic but cute elevator operator, Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), who also has a melancholy side. One married executive after another tries to pick her up without success, and Baxter wonders what his chances with her might be. Perhaps when he finally gets that promotion he’ll be in a position to try. Meanwhile, Miss Kubelik has a secret of her own…

I loved this film’s aesthetic, with the worker-bee office setting (and company Christmas party that must have served as inspiration for Mad Men) and the very cozy looking apartment that made me want to move right in – if the executives would stop coming around with their girlfriends, that is. And I was especially fond of Baxter’s frustrated neighbors, one of whom calls him a “beatnik” upon discovering he has no napkins in the house.

A Muppet Family Christmas (1987)

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And finally, one that isn’t black and white but will charm you all the same! This shortish (47 min.) and often overlooked television special manages to bring together characters from ALL of the shows starring the world’s favorite felt puppets: The Muppet Show, Sesame Street, Muppet Babies and even Fraggle Rock. It’s a heart-warming celebration of togetherness, family, friends and sharing.

You may already be familiar with The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), another favorite of mine but not covered here because this post is about the lesser known things. A Muppet Family Christmas precedes it by five years, but because it was designed for television only, it could not be widely released elsewhere due to copyright on the songs. It can therefore be hard to find, but if you take a look here you may just luck out.

The special begins with Fozzie Bear driving his friends from The Muppet Show to his mother’s house in the country for a surprise Christmas visit. Little does he realize that she’s about to leave for a Malibu vacation and has rented the house to the man from Fraggle Rock and his dog Sprocket, who have already arrived and are relishing the prospect of a quiet Christmas surrounded by nature. But when the gang arrives, they decide to stay with the uninvited guests, whose numbers seem never to stop growing as the program continues. The main Sesame Street cast is soon knocking at her door, followed by random groups of other Muppets, some known (Dr. Bunsen Honeydew) and some that may have been new (the snowman and turkey).

The Muppets meet, sing, negotiate space in the house and worry about Miss Piggy’s perilous journey through a snowstorm to join them. Meanwhile, the Swedish chef, who has arrived with a very large stockpot, sets his sights first on the turkey and then on Big Bird (!!!). The choice he makes next, disarmed by Big Bird’s naive benevolence, is rare both on the screen and in real life.

My favorite moments in this special are when we see a decidedly 1980s Miss Piggy chatting to Kermit over the phone from her photo shoot and shopping session, and when Kermit and Robin discover a spooky portal in the basement.

Be sure to watch to the end for the cameo by a VERY special someone!

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Perhaps some of these will become favorites for you, too! What holiday films do you like to watch again and again? Do you have any other obscure ones to add to this list?

And here’s my recipe for the perfect Christmastime evening:

  1. Make this Scandinavian juleboller dish for dinner
  2. Brew a pot of your favorite tea
  3. Settle yourself cozily on the couch with your favorite person or furry companion
  4. Watch one of the above Christmas movies while sipping your tea and enjoying some scrumptious dark chocolate mendiants (or the white chocolate version)

Merry Christmas to you! See you again in the new year.

Chocolate-dipped orange segments

As the holiday season gears into full swing, you may find yourself invited to multiple parties and potlucks. What dish will you bring? This question is a source of stress for many, and understandably so – it’s no easy task to choose something that stands out from the rest and isn’t a duplicate of someone else’s contribution. If it’s a dessert you’re after, look no further than this very easy and unique idea.

What’s nice about it is that it’s light and provides a burst of freshness, an ideal contrast after typically substantial holiday dishes like mashed potatoes and cornbread. And at the same time, it’s fancy and looks pretty on a tray. But best of all, for you, it’s super simple to make!

You really need just three things: oranges, a bar of dark chocolate and some dried coconut. I make mine using mandarin oranges because of their tangier flavor, but any orange (or even Meyer lemon or grapefruit, if you’re adventurous!) will do. You could also opt to sprinkle the chocolate with chopped nuts (pistachio for a nice green color) or jimmies in holiday or birthday colors, depending on the season.

Chocolate-dipped orange segments

For about 50 segments (serves about 6 people)

  • 4-5 mandarin oranges
  • 3.5 oz (100 g) dark chocolate
  • 1/2 cup dried grated coconut

Equipment needed: a double boiler or saucepan plus round-bottomed metal bowl to put on top for a bain marie set-up, heat-resistant spatula, trays for placing the chocolate-dipped segments on (small enough to put in the refrigerator), waxed or parchment paper.

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Begin by gathering your ingredients. As you can probably guess, I had more oranges on hand than I really needed. That’s one of the nice things about this recipe, though – if you decide halfway through to make a larger quantity, it’s easy to just peel some more oranges and melt more chocolate.

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Peel your oranges and separate the segments before anything else. Try to pick as much of the stringy white stuff off as you can. Make sure the segments are dry as the chocolate won’t stick to them otherwise (pat dry with a paper towel if any of them are covered in juice).

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Roughly chop the chocolate.

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Place it in the top part of your double-boiler or in the metal bowl. Heat the water on high until it boils, then reduce to low, ensuring that the water continues to simmer. During this time, you can prepare the trays that will be placed in the refrigerator. Line them with pieces of waxed or parchment paper.

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Melt the chocolate, stirring with your heat-resistant spatula to ensure even melting.

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Once the chocolate is completely melted, you’re ready to dip the orange segments!

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I prefer to dip the segments and sprinkle the coconut on just the top so the segments remain flat on one side and sit on the presentation plate better. But if you’re so inclined you can dip the segment into the bowl of coconut so it’s coated on both sides.

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I usually sprinkle all the segments with coconut at the same time as soon as the tray is full. Next, put the tray in the fridge so the chocolate can set. It will be ready in about an hour. Keep refrigerated until the time you serve them so the orange segments don’t go bad.

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I brought this most recent batch to a party and they went over quite well! To transport it, I laid the segments in layers separated by waxed paper in a flat-bottomed bowl with a Tupperware-type cover. They stayed in good shape despite a fair amount of bumping and jostling from strangers during a 45-minute trip on the metro.

Bonus recipe: if a bit of chocolate remains in the bowl after you’ve finished dipping your orange segments, just add some milk, heat the bottom pan again and whisk to make yourself a mug of artisanal hot chocolate!

If you make these chocolate-dipped orange segments, please let us know in the comments how they turned out and if you tried any variations. Enjoy!

 

Scandinavian juleboller with spiced blackcurrant sauce

Christmas is just around the corner, and if you’re as busy as me you may still be wondering what in the world to make for Christmas dinner. Today’s decidedly festive Nordic recipe, created by French chef Ôna Maiocco, may be the answer!

This savory dish offers a range of lovely textures and flavors. Smoked tofu comes together with onion, toasted nuts and mashed potato to form balls with a nice firm consistency and a bit of crunch. These are paired with fluffy mashed potatoes (everyone’s favorite!) and a rich, creamy brown sauce based on a buckwheat roux with fruity notes provided by blackcurrant juice. Finally, an armada of spices (cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, turmeric and black pepper) makes this a perfect Christmas dish—juleboller in fact means “Christmas balls” in Swedish and Norwegian.

I discovered this recipe a few years ago in Ôna’s 2013 cookbook Boulettes et galettes végétales (in French only). I’ve made it for several Christmas dinners since then and it’s always a delight. And while I usually present only original recipes on this blog, this one is so good that I felt it deserved a wider audience and asked Ôna if I could translate it for you.

Before we go on, a few words about Ôna. From an early age, she had been familiar with healthy organic cuisine thanks to her parents, who were firm believers in the merits of this type of food. Several years ago, after a first career in biology, she returned to her roots, deciding to forge a path for herself in the culinary arts, her true passion. Ôna earned a degree in pastry-making and supplemented her knowledge through self-study. Building upon her family’s tradition and her own values, she opted to make local, organic, sustainable vegan cuisine her focus. In 2011, she won the top prize in the professional category of the French sustainable food culinary competition Saveurs durables.

Today, she offers cooking classes in her beautiful sunlit and spacious atelier in the 18th arrondissement of Paris. The classes are in French, but with enough advance notice and a minimum number of participants, a class in English can be arranged. In addition to the cookbook from which this recipe is adapted, she has also published Je mange veggie : Bien manger végétarien c’est facile ! (January 2016), a guide to plant-based eating, and Ma cuisine super naturelle : manger bio, végétal et local (October 2017), a larger and more comprehensive cookbook.

And now, back to our recipe. The version presented here includes a few tiny changes and adaptations from the original. I’ve doubled the original amount to serve more people, added the cranberries as an optional garnish and suggested pomegranate juice as an optional alternative to the blackcurrant juice. The mashed potatoes recipe is my own.

If you know you’ll be pressed for time on the day of your dinner, you can make all three parts (mashed potatoes, tofu balls and sauce) ahead of time and reheat them, but I recommend making at least the sauce the day of.

Let’s get started!

Mashed potatoes

Serves 4 after removing 2 cups for the tofu balls. Can be made a day ahead and reheated on the stovetop.

  • 8-10 medium potatoes of a variety that’s good for mashing (Yukon Gold or others)
  • 2-3 tablespoons vegan butter, margarine or olive oil
  • 1/3 cup (78 ml) unsweetened soy or other plant-based cream, or more as needed
  • 1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
  • a few grinds of white or black pepper, or to taste

Peel the potatoes and cut them into large chunks. Place them in a large stockpot, add enough water to cover them and bring to a boil, covered, over high heat. After the water starts to boil, reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, covered but leaving a little space for the steam to escape, until the potatoes are tender, about 25-30 minutes. Drain the water and mash the potato chunks using a potato masher or immersion blender (if using a blender, try not to overmix).

Reserve 2 cups of the mashed potatoes (before anything else is added to them) for your tofu balls and set aside.

Add the vegan butter, plant-based cream, salt and pepper to the remaining potatoes and mash further to combine. Taste and adjust the seasonings as needed. Put the cover back on the stockpot and set aside.

Juleboller (Christmas tofu balls)

Makes around 30 tofu balls, enough for 4 people if served with mashed potatoes; otherwise enough for 2-3 people. Can be made a day ahead and reheated in the oven.

  • 3/4 cup (80 g) nuts (almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts etc.) or seeds (pumpkin, sunflower)
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 medium onion
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 2 cups, loosely packed (300 g) mashed potatoes reserved from the above recipe
  • 7 ounces (200 g) smoked tofu (or use plain tofu plus a bit of liquid smoke)
  • 1/2 cube vegetable bouillon (enough to make 1 cup/236 ml bouillon)
  • 1/2 cup (50 g) rolled oats
  • 1/3 cup (60 g) dried cranberries, for garnish (optional)
  • Small bunch parsley, for garnish
  • 1 recipe spiced blackcurrant sauce (scroll down for recipe)
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Begin by chopping the nuts, tofu and onion.

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I used a combination of hazelnuts, walnuts and almonds, but you can use any nuts or large seeds. Chop roughly; the pieces should be around the size of a pumpkin seed. Be careful not to chop too finely as you want recognizable pieces of nuts in the final product.

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Break the tofu into chunks with your fingers and then crush the chunks between your fingers and thumb to form coarse crumbs as shown.

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Peel and roughly dice a medium onion.

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Heat a dash of olive oil in a sauté pan and begin browning the onion over low-medium heat, stirring frequently.

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After a couple of minutes, add the nuts. Stir to combine.

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Add the cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and black pepper and stir to incorporate. Take a moment to enjoy the wonderful Christmasy scents that are now filling your kitchen. 🙂

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Continue browning the mixture, stirring often, until the onion is soft.

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While waiting for the mixture to cook, dilute half of a bouillon cube in 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons (88 ml) hot water. Keep the remaining half-cube out as you’ll need it for the sauce recipe.

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Transfer the reserved 2 cups of mashed potato to a medium or large mixing bowl. Mash any remaining lumps, as the potatoes need to be as smooth as possible to hold the tofu, oats, nuts and onion together.

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Add the tofu, rolled oats and onion/nut mixture.

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Pour the bouillon uniformly over the top of the mixture and stir thoroughly to combine. Preheat your oven at this point to 350°F (180°C).

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Roll up your sleeves and, with scrupulously clean hands, shape the mixture into balls of around 1.5 inch (4 cm) in diameter. But they don’t have to be exactly this size—just try to make all the balls the same size as each other for a uniform result. Place them on a baking sheet covered with baking paper.

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When the tray is full, put it in the preheated oven and bake for 20 minutes. In the meantime, you’ll prepare the sauce and reheat the mashed potatoes (if serving).

Spiced blackcurrant sauce

Makes enough sauce to go with the tofu balls in the above recipe.

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons buckwheat flour (do not substitute another flour because the buckwheat plays an important role in the flavor)
  • 1/2 cube vegetable bouillon (enough to make 1 cup/236 ml bouillon)
  • 1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon (100 ml) unsweetened soy cream
  • 1/4 cup plus 2 teaspoons (70 ml) blackcurrant juice (not syrup!) or pomegranate juice
  • 2 teaspoons soy sauce
  • 2 teaspoons granulated sugar (or more to taste), UNLESS you use a sweetened juice
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground turmeric
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper
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Heat the 2 tablespoons of olive oil over low-medium heat. While waiting for it to heat, dilute the remaining half cube of bouillon in 1 and 1/4 cup (300 ml) hot water and set aside.

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When the oil is hot, add the buckwheat flour and whisk to incorporate. Stir frequently.

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After a few minutes, it will have formed a thickish roux base and be simmering lightly.

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Add the bouillon (not shown), blackcurrant (or pomegranate) juice, soy sauce and spices. Whisk to combine.

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Add the soy cream and whisk to incorporate. Simmer, stirring frequently, for another two or three minutes. Taste the sauce to see if it needs any sugar (if it’s too acidic) or more salt (add more soy sauce) or more of the spices. Turn off burner and cover the saucepan to keep the sauce warm. At this point, if the tofu balls are almost ready, you can reheat the mashed potatoes if they need it.

Plating

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Once the tofu balls are done baking, begin plating the mashed potatoes (leave the tofu balls in the oven for the time being so they don’t lose heat). If you want to get fancy, a circle mold like this one will give you a nicely defined cylindrical shape. But you can achieve a similar effect using a measuring cup or small ramekin or bowl.

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Just after baking, the tofu balls can be a bit fragile (they firm up more after they cool a bit), so remove them from the paper carefully, using a twisting motion to gently release the part that’s stuck to the paper.

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Arrange the tofu balls around the mashed potatoes. You can use more tofu balls than this if your plate is larger, and also depending how many people you will be serving (just make sure you have enough for everyone). 😉

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Spoon the sauce over the tofu balls, add some cranberries and garnish the potatoes with the parsley sprigs.

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You can also opt to serve the tofu balls alone without mashed potatoes.

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Finally, here’s a more casual presentation with a mound of mashed potatoes (not molded) in the center and the sauce poured over the top.

Whichever way you choose, waste no time in getting everyone around the table and tucking in, as this dish is seriously yummy and you’ve been sweating in the kitchen long enough!

For a festive Scandinavian ambiance, put some nice Swedish Christmas songs or choir music on.

Enjoy and God Jul (Merry Christmas) to you!

If you liked this dish and can read French, I highly recommend picking up a copy of Boulettes et galettes végétales, the book it comes from. I’ve been impressed by every one of the recipes (both savory and sweet) that I’ve made from it. It’s actually now out of print, but (as of December 2017 at least—act fast!), you can still get it on Amazon.fr. Also check out Ôna’s new book, Ma cuisine super naturelle : manger bio, végétal et local.

Variations: Instead of mashed potatoes, serve with rice or couscous (note however that you will still need mashed potatoes in the balls to hold them together). Use roughly chopped or whole pumpkin seeds as an additional or single garnish.

Short days in Scandinavia

I usually spend Christmas and New Year’s Eve either in Paris or back home with my parents and sister. But this year, for something different, I went north to Denmark, where my brother is now living. To make things more interesting (and give my trip a much smaller carbon footprint), I decided to travel there and back by train rather than flying. This took me through Germany (with stops in Hamburg and Hannover), which was fun as I hadn’t been there for a few years. And as I also spent an afternoon in Malmö, Sweden (only a half-hour from Copenhagen by train), this trip took me to three countries, two of them new to me. I love this about Europe—with these relatively small nations (compared to the US), it’s so easy to cross borders and experience other cultures and languages.

Another excuse for traveling by rail was the chance to take a train that crosses the Fehmarn Belt strait by ferry! Yes, it drives right into the ferry at Puttgarden, Germany alongside the cars and patiently waits for the boat to reach Rødby, Denmark on the other shore 45 minutes later. During this time, passengers must leave the train and go up the stairs to the upper levels of the boat, where a plethora of duty-free shops and pricey food services can be found.

When you get this far north at the end of December, the days are pretty short—the sun sets at about 3:30 pm. I was hoping that it would still be somewhere in the sky for the beginning of our ferry crossing, but some technical delays meant that we couldn’t get started until around 4 pm. So my photos are a bit dark (click on them for a larger view), but for a better look you can also check out this short video that someone made in the summer.

A good share of the vacation was spent cozily on the couch, indulging in movies with my brother and his wife and kids, with candles and plenty of popcorn (this was where the mysterious Danish hygge was to be found, for me). We watched some Christmas classics, such as A Child’s Christmas in Wales and The Shop Around the Corner, and some of our childhood favorites including Coming to America and The Muppets Take Manhattan. But there was of course also a Denmark outside waiting to be discovered!

Because I was in Copenhagen right in the middle of the holidays (plus a Monday), most museums and restaurants were closed, but I did manage to stroll through the city streets and also explore a bit of Freetown Christiania, a self-proclaimed autonomous neighborhood that happens to lie within the borders of Copenhagen. One restaurant I did get to visit (twice!) is SimpleRAW, which I highly recommend. Despite its name, it does offer a cooked burger plus another cooked dish of the day (dhal, the week I was there), and hot drinks like coffee, tea and matcha latte, of which I was very glad as it really was SO COLD outside. Their raw lime cheesecake was simply divine.

The weather was gray and drizzly most of the time, but I still managed to get some fun and colorful photos. Here’s a selection.

I took one afternoon to go and explore Malmö, Sweden, which as mentioned above is only a short train ride (more trains!) to the east of Copenhagen. Trains leave in both directions several times per hour, and the cost is only around €10. I loved Malmö, a very cute smallish town with lots of old-timey charm. It didn’t hurt that it was also a nice sunny day.

Thanks to some advance planning, I managed to visit two vegan restaurants that were not closed during the holiday period. First, Lotta Love Açaí Bar, where I had—what else?—a huge açaí bowl covered with fruit, nuts and cacao nibs. And later, Vegan Bar, which is more like a restaurant with a bar in it and offers a range of super yummy burgers, including a portobello mushroom one. I also happened upon a thrift shop with lots of cute things (candleholders, clothes and dishes that would have been perfect for my food photos). It was sad, but probably also lucky, that I couldn’t buy anything due to insufficient room in my suitcase (and my apartment!).

If you ever visit Malmö, don’t miss Lilla Torg, a little square with a lamp installation that is lit both at night and during the day, but is most interesting after sunset.

We also took a day trip to Denmark’s second-largest city, Aarhus, to visit the impressive ARoS Aarhus Kunstmuseum. Established in 1859, it is Denmark’s oldest public art museum outside Copenhagen. It has been especially attractive to visitors since 2011, with the addition of the circular skywalk installation Your Rainbow Panorama by Icelandic-Danish artist Ólafur Elíasson. Inside, we enjoyed various exhibits on multiple floors, most of them featuring Scandinavian artists apart from a temporary exhibition devoted to works by Portuguese artist Joana Vasconcelos.

The final excitement of my trip was the New Year’s Eve party with some friends of my brother, for which we made a huge dinner. My contributions included a spinach, red bell pepper and tomato quiche and some almond-apricot cupcakes decorated with toasted slivered almonds and edible gold dust. Everyone in the neighborhood was setting off fireworks the whole evening, but at midnight they multiplied their efforts by 10 and there was no break in the booming, crackling and colorful explosions of lights for a full 35 minutes.

Soon after that, I was back on the road (or rather, rail) again to return to Paris. I stopped for the night in Hannover, where I got to try out the highly acclaimed restaurant Hiller, and the next evening was home and reunited with Sésame, who greeted me with many kitty kisses.

Chocolate mendiants

It’s easy to get overly ambitious around Christmastime and to plan a number of grand meals and complicated desserts, only to wake up one day and realize it’s already the 23rd or 24th and you don’t have the right ingredients or enough time to make everything you wanted. This is especially likely to happen, for some reason, with dishes that you hope to bring to holiday parties, escalating your anxiety levels further. But never fear, your favorite blogger is here to the rescue! Today I bring you a very easy-to-make traditional French confectionery creation that will nevertheless impress just about everyone. And since the toppings can vary greatly, you might already have everything you need in your kitchen cupboards.

These little Yuletide delicacies hail from the south of France and the fruits and nuts traditionally used represent the colors of the robes worn by the friars in four mendicant orders during the Middle Ages. These are gray (raisins) for the Dominicans, brown (hazelnuts) for the Augustinians, white (almonds cut in half) for the Caramelites and purple (fig or cranberry) for the Franciscans. As these friars subsisted on charitable offerings, they were referred to as mendiants (beggars), and the confections took on the same name. These items are also among the 13 desserts served at the end of the traditional Christmas meal in Provence.

Today, many types and combinations of nuts and fruits are used, so feel free to use whatever you have on hand! I used walnuts, peanuts, pistachios, cranberries, physalis and pineapple.

Chocolate mendiants

Makes 12 to 15 mendiants

Ingredients

  • about 6 oz (180 g) dark chocolate in bar form (or chocolate chips)
  • toasted nuts (walnuts, peanuts, almonds, pistachios, macadamia, etc.)
  • dried fruit (cranberries, cherries, raisins, apricot, citrus segments, etc.)
  • other items such as pumpkin seeds, candied ginger, white chocolate chips, toasted coconut chips, colorful Christmas sprinkles, fleur de sel, gold leaf

Equipment needed: double-boiler or metal mixing bowl plus saucepan, parchment or waxed paper

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Begin by assembling all the fruits and nuts you will use, so that you’re ready once the chocolate has melted.

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Break or chop your chocolate bar into more or less evenly sized pieces.

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Next, heat some water in a medium-sized saucepan and place a metal bowl on top of it (or a second, smaller saucepan for a double-boiler). Be sure that the water in the saucepan does not touch the bottom of the bowl or second saucepan. Place the chopped chocolate in it and heat, stirring occasionally with a heat-proof spatula.

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Once all of the chocolate has melted, turn off the heat but keep the bowl on top of the saucepan full of hot water.

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Line a tray with parchment paper and, using a teaspoon (the kind you use to stir your coffee, not the measuring kind), form small, round disks. After creating them, go back and add a bit more on the top of each one to ensure that they are thick enough. Make only six at a time so that you have time to add all the toppings before the chocolate firms.

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Add your toppings. I like to start with the larger items and then add the other ones around them.

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Once you’ve finished the first batch, put the tray in the fridge and continue making mendiants until you have used up the rest of your chocolate. The mendiants will be set after an hour or two of chilling (allow two to three hours to be on the safe side).

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Serve your mendiants on a platter at a party, or box them up as a gift!

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These mendiants were my Christmas gift to the concierge of my building, who brings our mail to our doors and takes time out of her morning to give Sésame (who is in love with her) a thorough scratching and petting on the days when my mail includes a package. This year, I included some photos of the furry little guy, which she was delighted to receive (they now adorn her refrigerator door, I was told). 🙂

Variations: change things up with this white chocolate version!

DIY gift wrapping

Store-bought gift wrapping has often struck me as a senseless waste, given that it’s usually thrown away after just one use. Of course, it sometimes can be reused without too much social disapproval, for example in a family or among sympathetic friends. But another option is to make your own wrapping paper out of things that were going to be recycled anyway. Not only is it more sustainable and cost-effective, but it’s also a lot more fun. You can select specific images for each gift, either to match one of the recipient’s areas of interest or to hint at the package’s contents. Choosing and matching colors and patterns is also something I find quite satisfying.

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This year, as I set out to wrap some Christmas gifts, I looked through my magazine piles and selected some free publications that I wasn’t going to look at again. These included an old Air France magazine, a Palais des Thés tea catalogue, a free cinema magazine from a local theater, and the summer edition of my district’s magazine (yes, in Paris each of the 20 arrondissements has its own free magazine to keep residents in the know—nice, huh?). Other things that can be upcycled into gift wrapping are brochures from art exhibitions, newspaper pages, comics and even old maps. Anything with interesting colors and visuals can work as long as the paper is thick enough.

I put some Christmas music on to create a festive mood, made myself some tea and began selecting pages.

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Magazine pages are especially good for small items. This particular gift was wrapped with a page from the tea catalogue. I then wrapped a smaller accompanying box with a strategically selected section of a page showing a map of Air France destinations.

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Sésame took a break from his busy day to help out by supervising my work from beneath our “tree” (pine branches in a vase). He approved overall, despite the disappointing lack of cat images.

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Pages from a cinema magazine are especially nice when you’re wrapping a gift for a film-loving friend. For bigger items, you will need to tape two or more pages together (taping them on one side is usually enough). Here you can see that I’ve chosen to leave the ripped edge as is, rather than trimming it, partly because cutting it would mean losing part of the image, and partly for an artisanal deckle effect. For this kind of homemade item, precision and perfection are actually not what you want.

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The item I was wrapping was too big for just the two magazine pages to cover it, so I added more to the top, choosing contrasting colors. Keep in mind that the edges will not be visible once the paper is folded around the gift, but with some maneuvering you can probably get the right part to show.

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Finally, add some colorful ribbons and possibly some washi tape, and you’re done!

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