Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Charlie Browniest Time of Year - Part II (with Brownies!)

Yep. Walmart and Target were open on Thanksgiving Day this year.  I just read an article about a Toys 'R Us store in Times Square that is going to stay open for 586 hours straight so people can buy toys every single minute from now until Christmas. I cannot click anywhere on the web without running into glossy, adjective-laden gift guides featuring the "must have" items for each and every person I have ever had even a passing acquaintance with. Amazon wants me to know they deliver on Sundays, and that time is running out.   Fortunately, I'm going to be saving Big Bucks, thanks to all the one-day sales, 4 hour sales, lightning deals and first-come-first-served, once in a lifetime bargains out there.

It's literally insane, this frenzy.  It's like nobody even pays attention to old Christmas specials anymore.

In the spirit of the Whos, and in case you are panicking a little and don't live near that Toys 'R Us in Manhattan, I thought I'd share some alternative ideas for Christmas giving.  I've been on both ends of all of these on one Christmas morning or another, and love them.*

1.  Treat to something they'd normally do for themselves.  Call the place down the street where Mom escapes for a manicure, does yoga, or gets her hair done, and arrange to chip in for the next one.  If your daughter stops at Starbucks every day on the way home from school, pick up the tab for the week.  Fill a tank with gas and get your teenager's car washed.  You get the idea.  It shows you notice, and want to take one little thing off their list.  My sister does this for me, and now I do it for her.  I literally feel like a fairy godmother, and it's so easy.

2.  Spring for tickets. It's like magic, seeing someone open a stocking or a box and finding seats to a concert, a play, a basketball game, or even a pair of movie tickets and popcorn money.  You are giving not only the actual experience, but the anticipation of the event, and the planning and the hoping and the talking about it after and all those photos on Instagram.  Plus, tickets take up zero space in anyone's room, and you don't have to take them to Goodwill a few months later.

3. Take them away.  Book a room in town and whisk your spouse away for the night.  Send your son on a flight to see Grandpa, or your daughter to see a friend that moved to a new city.  Wrap up a travel poster from a vacation spot you have in mind for Spring Break and put it under the tree.   Sign up for a scavenger hunt or walking tour around town as a family.  You might wind up with a little souvenir clutter afterward, but its a small price to pay for that break in routine.

4. Classes.  Find one that will kindle an interest, or feed a passion. There are baking classes, wine-tasting evenings, photography workshops, guitar lessons, trapeze instruction, beer-making, cheese-making, getting scuba certified, surfing camp, improv lessons, Drivers Ed (yikes!)'s kind of incredible how many options there are.  The trick is not to imply that the classes are actually needed:  e.g. "Your pot roasts suck, so I'm getting you cooking lessons."  Tread carefully.

5.  Upgrade something worn or replace something lost.  Find a jacket just like one that was lost and sorely missed.  Get new running shoes so the ones with the lopsided heel can be retired, a wallet to replace the one that is fraying around the edges, or a favorite pair of jeans in the next size for a kid who is sprouting like a weed.   Can be as small as keychain or as large as, say, a Sub Zero refrigerator. Hint. Hint.

Above all, use the person you are buying for as the gift guide, not some magazine or website**.  You know what will make them happy.  Put a whimsical colored spatula in a chef's stocking. Get a jersey from a favorite sports star, or frame a picture they made in school and hang it up. Pick up the next book in a favorite series, or the missing quarter from their 50 state collection.  Send a funny e-card. Donate a rabbit in their name. Take a girlfriend out to lunch, buy her a glass of wine and just listen for an hour.  It might be the most perfect gift they've ever received, and it might not. But they'll love it anyway, because you took the time to think about them, and it shows.

If you do want some kind of insurance policy though, you might want to make them these brownies.

Amaretto Brownies with a Cream Cheese Swirl

"Tidings of Great Joy" Amaretto Brownies with a Cream Cheese Swirl

by Sharon Graves
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook Time: 25 -30 minutes
Simple and utterly delicious!  Cream cheese swirl from The Magnolia BakeryCookbook.  These are ooey and gooey by nature, at least with the brownie mix that I like.  Makes enough to feed an army, to last one person through a marathon of Rankin-Bass holiday specials.  
  • 2 packages of your favorite store brownie mix, prepared according to the directions. My favorite is the Ghiaradelli Ultimate Fudge Brownie.
  • 1/2 tsp. almond extract
  • 1/2 tsp. espresso powder (optional)
  • 2 generous tsp. Amaretto
  • 1 8 oz package cream cheese, softened
  • 1/4 c. sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1 generous tsp. Amaretto
  • 2 Tbs. flour

Preheat oven to 350. Butter the bottom of a 13x9 pan, and set aside.

Make the brownies according to the directions. Add almond extract, espresso powder, and Amaretto.

Pour into prepared pan.

In a separate bowl, use an electric mixer to combine the cream cheese and the sugar until light and fluffy. Mix in the egg, Amaretto, and flour.

Drop small spoonfuls of the cream cheese mixture into the brownie mixture. Using a sharp knife, gently swirl the cream cheese around. It doesn't have to be perfect!

Bake for 25-35 minutes, until the center is completely set, not jiggly, and a toothpick in the middle comes out with damp crumbs. Cool completely, cut into bars, and serve!

Amaretto Brownies with a Cream Cheese Swirl - Baked in Pan

* The corollary list of what NOT to give, at least in my house:
  • Giant tins of stale flavored popcorn
  • Shrink-wrapped sets of strongly scented toiletries
  • Coffee
  • Anything that says "Bless this Mess" in needlepoint
  • Animals, particularly goldfish
  • Day planners (see my note under Classes about using gifts as lesson-teachers)
  • Sacks of potpourri
  • Statuary
  • Craft kits with lots of very small plastic parts
** Even this one. What do I know?  What are some of your favorite gifting traditions?


  1. really great suggestions, sharon! those are probably the fudgiest brownies i've ever seen, too. bravo, and merry christmas! :)

  2. Get new running shoes so the ones with the lopsided heel can be retired, ...