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My Five-Layer Zebra Cake Recipe

My FIve-Layer Zebra Cake garnished with dark, white and milk chocolate chips.

My FIve-Layer Zebra Cake garnished with dark, white and milk chocolate chips.

I am, by no means, a professional baker but I do like to cook and experiment with recipes whenever I get a chance. I made two Red Velvet cakes last week so for my birthday I thought I’d try something different.

If you’re looking for a ‘healthy‘ cake recipe– this is NOT the one. Even though we live a primarily, low carb lifestyle, we do allow cheating around holidays and special occasions. This cake is NOT sugar-free, fat-free, gluten free or low carb. This is a fully-leaded, rich, moist, dense cake loaded with flavor and about a million calories.
  • There are five alternating layers of chocolate and white cake, sandwiched between alternating layers of chocolate and buttercream frosting.
  • I found the original buttercream recipe too small.  So in addition to the changes I made, I doubled the ingredients to allow for generous layers of buttercream and a little extra if you decide you might want to decorate with it. (maybe swirl it in with the chocolate.
  • This cake only takes three hours from start to finish, including cooling and frosting time. The finished product is a tall cake, comprised of five full-sized layers.
White Cake Ingredients
  • 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
  • ½ cup vegetable shortening
  • 3 cups granulated sugar
  • 5 eggs, room temperature
  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • ½ teaspoon baking powder
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup buttermilk, room temperature
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Chocolate Cake Ingredients

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 3/4 cup cocoa
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon espresso powder or (one Starbuck Via packet)
  • 1 cup heavy whipping cream
  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 3 eggs
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1 cup hot coffee or (1 cup boiling water)
 Buttercream Frosting Ingredients

  • 1 cup unsalted butter (2 stick), softened
  • 5 cups confectioner’s sugar, sifted
  • 5-8 tablespoons heavy whipping cream  (you can substitute half-and-half or milk)
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

Chocolate Frosting Ingredients

  • 1 1/2 cups unsalted butter (3 sticks), softened
  • 1 cup cocoa
  • 5 cups confectioner’s sugar
  • 1/2 cup heavy whipping cream
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1/2 teaspoon espresso powder or (1/2 Starbuck Via packet)

Decorations/Garnish

  • 1/4 cup each of dark, white and milk chocolate chips (add more or less as desired)
White Cake Instructions
  1. Preheat oven to 350º F. Prepare three 9-inch round cake pans coated well with shortening (or butter) and flour them,  removing all excess flour. (Do not coat with nonstick baking spray.)
  2. Cream together the butter and shortening with an electric mixer until light and fluffy. Slowly add sugar about a cup at a time, making sure to fully incorporate each cup before adding the next. Add eggs one at a time, mixing well before adding another.
  3. Sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Slowly add it to the butter and shortening, alternating with the buttermilk, until completely combined Next, add the vanilla extract and mix the batter on high until combined. Scrape the bowl as you go, making sure everything is mixed well.
  4. Batter will be extremely thick (stiff). Evenly distribute cake batter between the three cake pans and place pans into oven. Bake for approximately 30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out dry. Remove from the oven and let cool briefly in cake pans, then cool completely on a baking rack.
Chocolate Cake Instructions
  1. Preheat oven to 350º F. Prepare two 9-inch cake pans by greasing and flouring. Do not coat with nonstick baking spray.
  2. Add flour, sugar, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda, salt and espresso powder to a large bowl for mixing. Mix well to combine. (I could not find espresso powder but found a Starbucks Via packet worked perfectly in its place.)
  3. Add milk, vegetable oil, eggs, and vanilla to flour mixture and mix well until well combined. On low speed, carefully add the hot coffee to the batter. Mix on high speed briefly to make the batter fluffy.
  4. Distribute cake batter evenly between the two cake pans. Bake for approximately 35 minutes, or until a toothpick  inserted in the center comes out dry.
  5. Remove and allow to cool for 5 to 10 minutes, then remove from the pan and cool on a bakers rack.

 Buttercream Frosting Instructions

  1. Place softened butter into the bowl and using a mixer, cream the butter until it is smooth and fluffy.
  2. Add confectioner’s sugar, small amounts at a time and periodically mix on high to keep it light.
  3. Add vanilla and salt and mix well.
  4. Add heavy whipping cream  until the frosting is smooth, fluffy and workable. If you like firm frosting, add more confectioner’s sugar. Just remember if it is too firm it will be more difficult to apply to the cake. For a soft cream frosting, add more heavy whipping cream.

 Chocolate Frosting Instructions

  1. Pour cocoa in a large bowl for mixing.
  2. Cream together butter and cocoa powder until blended. Scrape well throughout the process as the cocoa will tend to stick to the bowl.
  3. Alternate adding sugar and heavy whipping cream to the cocoa mixture in small amounts. Periodically, turn mixer on high speed briefly to keep frosting light. Repeat until all the sugar and cream have been blended.
  4. Last, add the vanilla extract and espresso powder and mix well.
  5. If frosting seems too dry, add more heavy whipping cream, a little at a time until it reaches a smooth consistency. If it appears too moist, add more confectioner’s sugar, a little at a time until it’s smooth and creamy.

Assembling the Cake

  1. Place the first layer of white cake on you cake platter and then frost the top with a generous amount of buttercream frosting.
  2. The second layer should be chocolate, topping with chocolate frosting.
  3. Continue alternating white- chocolate- white with a layer of frosting between each until all five layers are assembled.
  4. Frost the entire cake with the remaining chocolate frosting and you can blend in the remaining buttercream, or use it for more precise decorating.
  5. Use the chocolate chips for decoration by sprinkling them on top of the finished cake and carefully pressing them individually into the sides of the cake as desired.

Now cut yourself a big hunk of cake and enjoy!

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I hope you enjoy this tasty treat! You can also make just the chocolate cake or the white cake with your choice of frosting.

  • The coffee and espresso powder are barely noticeable and add a richness, not really a coffee flavor to the chocolate cake and frosting.

I promise the next recipe I share will be especially for those health-conscious people out there looking for delicious alternatives to mundane cooking. I’d love to hear to comments!

2013 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 4,900 times in 2013. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 4 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

It’s Just Another Day

After a relaxing, rather uneventful birthday– I’m not sure what I expected when I got up this morning… but being that my life follows the Big Brother slogan, “Expect the Unexpected”… I should have been prepared.

We decided to have a few people over tomorrow evening for New Year’s Eve and Michael and I were discussing it this morning before he left for work. I decided to run to Jewel and get some salt for the driveway because the back was a solid sheet of ice.

I warmed up the car and pulled around to the front gate but it wouldn’t open. I thought the battery in the remote was frozen but it was lighting up. It took me a few moments to notice some of the Christmas lights outside were also off, so I figured the breaker must have flipped.

I went back in to tell Michael he might have to use the other gate, checked the breaker and it just kept tripping when I tried to reset it. Oh well, I figured I’d try and fix it later.

l_8474eab0-af1e-11e1-b28b-1755f6a00003So, I went and got salt. I came back home, got out of the car to close the back gate…. then BAM! Full body-slam on the ice. Luckily, I was wearing my puffy coat and my ski cap (which Michael refers to as Pippi Longstocking) and they thankfully cushioned my fall. I wasn’t hurt– just a little rattled. I spread the salt and went about my day.

When I got around to messing with the breaker again, I figured one of my light connections outside might be continuing to trip it, so I disconnected them. Of course I was wondering, Why couldn’t this have happened AFTER New Years? Because now I had to get the lights working again for our guests coming over tomorrow night expecting to see them.

I went back in to get some things so I could try switching out some cords. While I was there, I decided to plug in the big Christmas tree and… nothing.

N-O-T-H-I-N-G.

What?!?

Yes, after checking all the breaker boxes– The outlet was on the same breaker as the gate and the outlet the lights were plugged in to outside. What idiot wired this place? (The trials and tribulations of an old house.)

I went back out, put down the cords, noticed the ice wasn’t melting enough– and I let my ADD take over and I was back on the road to get for more salt. But, instead of going back to Jewel, where I knew they had salt… I decided to waste an hour of my time, driving from place to place to find that it (the salt) was either way overpriced or sold out. (Thank you Ace Hardware and Home Depot!) So I ended up– back at Jewel– for more salt. (I cleaned them out.)

I got back home, spread more salt… now totaling around 200 lbs!

Oh wait, what was I doing?

Oh yeah, then back to my lights. I re-ran cords, connected them to a different outlet… lights working… done.

Back inside…. re-ran the cord through the foyer to a different outlet… big Christmas tree… working.

Breaker…

Not working. Fried. Dead…. and no remote gate. (Sigh.)

The ice did start to melt in the driveway but I put down another 25 lbs in the heavier areas anyway.

So, basically… I spent the whole day just to get back to where I was when I went to bed the night before.

What next?

Oh yeah… it’s snowing again.

More shoveling, more salt ahead.

Just another typical day.

Over the Hump: Turning 51

Last year I celebrated my 50th birthday, December 29th– at 12:01 am (my official birth time), in my favorite city in the world: New York– standing in Times Square. This year, the moment was spent snuggled in bed with my babies, Cash and Roxie. Two vastly different scenarios but both equally appealing and memorable.

I can’t say I’ve looked forward to this birthday the way I did the last but I haven’t dreaded it either. Turning 50 was magical. Why does turning 51 feel like it just sounds so much older? I’m now officially over the half-century hump.

I’ve always said age is just a number and it’s more about how old you feel. Better put: it’s how old you act. Measured that way, I must seem pretty schizophrenic to some people. Believe me, the old adage, act your age means very little to me. Acting your age assumes that you know how someone in your shoes should act. How can you actually know that, if you haven’t already experienced it?

I think society still expects that once you reach a certain age, there are certain behaviors that should be adopted to exhibit a perceived level of maturity. As our population ages and life expectancy increases, some of those presumptions are also changing. Nevertheless, I’d prefer to be referred to as an old, crazy, creative guy than someone that acts their age. Being 50-plus may not be considered old anymore but I think it’s still considered something worse by the younger generation: boring. I hope I never fall into that category.

I’m pretty lucky. Most of the people I know– my age and older are active, adventurous mold breakers. In their seventies, my parents are extremely active and constantly on the go. One of my friends that just retired has basically traveled the world, non-stop this past year. So I have some great examples going forward.

I’ve had plenty of time to reflect and to reevaluate my ambitions over this past year. What is clear, is that there are still so many things I want to accomplish, places I want to visit and things I want to experience in this short lifetime. I want to leave my mark, my thumbprint on the world– in some way, making it a better place. I’m still not sure how I accomplish that. Whether it be through my writing, some action, or some impact through connecting with others… I guess only time will tell.

My fiftieth year was in many ways a difficult one. A big year for change. At the same time, it was year full of affirmations. So even though I may be over the half-century hump–it’s certainly not all downhill from here. Onward, upward… so much to do, to see… to create. There are many new adventures ahead.

Live life, love those around you… and above all else: Be Yourself!

Christmas at 321 Division Street: Photo Essay

Happy Holidays Everyone! I just wanted to share some photos in and around the house decorated for the holidays. Our house was built in 1889 by John Newman and is frequently referred to as the Butterman Mansion. I hope you enjoy!

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Sounds of the Season: My Top 12 Favorite Christmas Recordings

I thought I’d share some of my favorite holiday music with you to help you get in the Christmas Spirit.

As a kid, my favorite thing was to turn all the lights off in the house, except the Christmas lights, pull out all the old Christmas records and crank up the stereo.

When I started putting this list together, I was wondering if I should include some of my old favorites that are out of print. As luck would have it, I found several of them in various formats! I’ll start by mentioning a few more sentimental favorites from my childhood that aren’t readily available.

Firestone and Goodyear released some great Christmas collections when I was a kid. Many are out of print but a few have managed to be released and re-released commercially and fewer still are available as mp3 downloads. I realize many people won’t appreciate these vintage recordings the way I do because the style and recording quality may feel too outdated.

Firestone – Your Favorite Christmas Volume 1 (MLP7005) My parents owned this album and my Grandma had Volume 3. Lots of choral renditions with soloists here. Very nostalgic. I was able to get a clean, digitized copy and I;ll admit, I kind of miss the skips and scratches I remember from our old worn out record.

 

 

 

Goodyear – Great Songs of Christmas, Volume 6 Featuring many prominent artists of the day. If I think of childhood Christmases, I immediately think of the New Christy Minstrels’ version of We Need A Little Christmas found here. It also includes the best-ever version of Let It Snow! by Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme.

 

 

 

Goodyear. Christmas Is (P11417) Another popular artist collection– I can actually remember the excitement of following my Mom into Goodyear to buy this one. I played The Carpenters, Merry Christmas Darling — so many times, I nearly wore it out.

 

 

 

MY TOP 12

O here’s my most current top twelve. I did try to rank these album as best I could– saving the best for last. I hope you find some new, or maybe remind you of some familiar choices!

Number Twelve

kellyWrapped In Red by Kelly Clarkson New this year, I hate to list it in last place but it hasn’t had the opportunity to stand the test of time. Clarkson co-wrote five original songs on the album that vocally, once again shows her versatility as an artist. Pop, country, traditional– there’s something for everyone. Undoubtedly, the song I’ll have listened to most this season, will be the original, Winter Dreams (Brandon’s Song). Contemporary and upbeat, I can’t get enough of it.

 

Number Eleven

burlRudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer by Burl Ives   Pure nostalgia wins this album a spot on my list. Watching Rudolph on TV was a family holiday tradition. It was years before I knew Burl Ives wasn’t a snowman in real life.

 

 

 

Number Ten

crosbyWhite Christmas by Bing Crosby One of the best-selling Christmas albums of all time, White Christmas (1945) has the distinction of being the longest, continuous in-print recording in the U.S.. second only to the musical cast album, Oklahoma! (1943).

 

 

 

Number Nine

connickWhen My Heart Finds Christmas by Harry Connick, Jr. A long time favorite. Connick’s smooth crooning warms you from the inside out.

 

 

 

Number Eight

amyHome For Christmas by Amy Grant I love this album. Re-released and expanded as The Christmas Collection, Two of my all-time favorites are included: Breath of Heaven (Mary’s Song) and My Grown Up Christmas List.

 

 

Number Seven

KennyGFaith: A Holiday Album by Kenny G Currently only $7.33 for both the CD AND the MP3 (Auto-Rip) version through Amazon. I love a good soulful instrumental album and this one hits the spot. The perfect background for holiday parties or after dinner music and cuddling by the fire.

 

 

Number Six

vanessa christmasThe Christmas Collection: The Best of Vanessa Williams: 20th Century Masters Originally released as Star Bright, this collection is hard to beat. I’ve always been a big fan of Williams and this recording is one of her best. It’s a terrific bargain, currently only $4.99 and you receive both the CD AND the MP3 (Auto-Rip) version.

 

 

Number Five

christmasMasonChristmas! Christmas! Christmas! by Karen Mason   A live recording by Chicago’s own, Karen Mason. Mason still tours a version of this cabaret production annually, which is brimming with humor, heart and holiday joy. It’s a gem!

 

 

Number Four

allychristmasAlly McBeal: A Very Ally Christmas From the hit TV show featuring Vonda Shepard as well as performances by the rest of the cast. Shepard may not have Adele’s dazzling technique but she certain has her heart and soul. Most notable on this album is Robert Downey, Jr.’s heartbreaking rendition of River. Amazon doesn’t currently have the album available for download but it is available on iTunes.

 

 

Number Three

NoelGrobanNoel by Josh Groban I can’t resist Groban’s warm smooth voice. If you are looking for a male artist whose sound is a little more traditional– check this one out. You can get both the CD AND the MP3 download together in this version from Amazon  Here.

 

 

 

Number Two

babsA Christmas Album by Barbra Streisand A perennial favorite, re-issued three times and never out of print, this 1967 album is always on my playlist. It was the best-selling Christmas Album in 1967, spending five weeks at #1 and is believed to be one of the best selling of all time. ( It is not listed in the Top Ten on the Billboard chart, which only records sales from 1991.) It’s probably my most listened to Christmas recording. Over the years, I owned it in every format (except 8-track tape) and I love every song. Streisand’s rendition of Ava Maria remains my favorite to this day. Not bad for a Jewish girl from Brooklyn. You can purchase the CD AND the MP3 download together in this origbabsversion from Amazon for only $4.99 Here.

 

 

 

 

My Number One Favorite Holiday Album of All-Time is:

Christmas Wonderland by Bert Kaempfert Recorded in 1963, this all instrumental album is timeless. I grew up with it and some of you may recognize tracks that were used frequently in seasonal commercials. I spent years looking for it on CD and finally found it a few years back. It was remastered and re-released in 1997 on CD and cassette. It is currently not available as an MP3 download but new CDs are available through Amazon.com starting at $23.99. If you are looking for a great one, I highly recommend it.

 

 

 

Free (and Cheap) Holiday Music at Amazon.com:

Here are some free Holiday MP3 album downloads available as of today (12/17/13):

Green Hill Christmas Music Sampler – Twelve songs by various artists. FREE.

Green Hill – Christmas Music Sampler: 20 Holiday Favorites – Free Download.

Free Must-Have Christmas Masterpieces – Four more songs; various artists. FREE.

Tons of Music For Only 99 Cents:

Big Christmas Box – 280 tracks including a large chunk of Handel’s Messiah for a total of over 13 hours of music! Only 99 cents.

 

And For Those of You Stressed Out By the Holidays:

Green Hill – One Hour Of Spa Music: An Exclusive Amazon Sampler – Great Artists in this free 9 song download.

Dream Music: For Sleep & Relaxation (Exclusive Amazon Digital Sampler) – 24 free Tracks to help you sleep and relax.

I apologize in advance if any of the prices or links aren’t accurate but they are all current as of this posting. (12/17/13)

Happy listening!

Winter Dreams: A Photo Essay

We had a beautiful snow yesterday– so at my Dad’s request, I took the opportunity to shoot some photographs around the house. I hope you enjoy them! (If you click on the photo, you’ll be taken to a larger image.)

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Decking the Halls For The Holidays: Part Four- The Easy Holiday Centerpiece

IMG_5223 - Version 2Accenting the home for the holidays can be as much fun as decorating the tree. It can also be challenging if you aren’t sure what to do. You can always go out and buy a floral arrangement, accent or centerpiece but I find so many items available are overpriced for their marginal quality.

Why not create your own?

You can add charm and warmth to a room with a few small groupings of holiday accents. It’s real simple to create a beautiful centerpiece for your dining table, fairly inexpensively and in a matter of minutes. I’m going to walk you through the steps to creating one simple arrangement and then I’ll share some additional ideas and suggestions to get your creative juices flowing.

I always recommend that you start with an idea and with items you already have on hand. Then purchase only what you need to complete your project. It’s easy to re-purpose bowls, baskets, greenery and other accessories with just a little thought and imagination.

The Easy Holiday Centerpiece

I didn’t purchase anything specifically for this project. All the items I used are inexpensive and easily attainable if you decide to duplicate it for your own home.

Material List:

A  Decorative Bowl

Pine Cones (assorted sizes)

A Small Bundle of Cinnamon Sticks

Assorted Artificial Fruit (floral picks)

Artificial Leaves

A Floral Berry Pick

Wire cutters

Your bowl can be as plain or decorative as you want. A basket would also work for this project.

I actually used three bags of pine cones I had on hand, in three sizes (S, M, L)– some of which were painted gold. Of course you can use pine cones you find outside; or they are available, by the bag, at most craft and home stores. (Home Depot has big bags of scented pine cones for under $5, as an example.)

You can use any kind of artificial fruit you’d like. They are available in a wide variety of types, colors and finishes to choose from. I used 2 pears, an apple and 4 pomegranates for this one.

For the leaves, I had used the flowers from an artificial poinsettia bunch for another project; then, cut the leaf stems off and used the leaves for this one. I didn’t have any wire cutters handy so I used an old pair of pruners to cut the stems. You might also find that an old dull pair of scissors will do the job just as well.

I only used one berry pick (stem) as the final accent. The stem was easy to separate and pull apart in sections but could also be cut apart. Again, different sizes, colors and finishes are available and can work well here.

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First. lay out your materials so they are all visible and within reach. Remember, there is no wrong way or right way… just your way.

 

 

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Next, dump your large pine cones in the bowl. Arrange them loosely. As you continue, you can arrange them any way you like.

 

 

 

 

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If using painted pine cones, add the large ones and you can mix them slightly with the unpainted ones or group them on top. Adding them separately gives you the ability to make sure they are visible accents and don’t become buried in your arrangement.

 

 

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Add all your medium pine cones to the mix. I literally just dump them on top and move a few around to balance them out among the larger ones already in the bowl.

 

 

 

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Add the fruit to the bowl. You’ll want to start paying attention to the shape of your centerpiece at this time. Also, make sure you mix up the colors and kinds of fruit you are using for balance.

 

 

 

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The cinnamon sticks are next. I randomly placed mine, sticking them in between the pine cones. If you want a more formal look to your arrangement, you may want to start placing things in your arrangement, more symmetrically.

 

 

 

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Add the leaves or greenery. You may choose to use more or less, depending on your taste. Use just a few to accent or more to blend all the elements together.

 

 

 

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Now, add your small pine cones. let them fill the gaps and voids and make sure to allow some to lay on the leaves and fruit.

 

 

 

 

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At this point, you may want to rearrange some of your elements and get them exactly where you want them. Make sure to look at your project from all angles so it looks good from anywhere in the room. You can always add or subtract items as you go. The final step is to add the pieces of your berry stem as the final accents to your centerpiece.

 

 

You’re done! Congratulations!

 

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Here are a couple other examples you may want to try. (I used the same style base bowl in all three examples here.)

For this next centerpiece, I used a large pineapple finial as the center, placed in the bowl, surrounded it with artificial evergreen picks and then accented it with smaller berry and fruit picks.

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For my foyer table, I used the same general idea, placing a small tabletop Christmas tree in an urn and sat it in the center of a bowl, then added pine cones, topped them with grape clusters (evenly spaced) and then inserted cinnamon sticks between the grapes. On the tree, I used a large number of crystal berry picks inserted throughout the tree with white poinsettias around the base of the tree in the urn.

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I hope you’ll find these ideas useful. If they inspire you to create your own centerpiece, please share them with me. I’d love to see your unique creations!

Decking the Halls For The Holidays: Part Three- Decorating the Tree

Ornaments Galore!

Ornaments Galore!

I love Christmas trees. Of the fourteen Christmases we’ve spent in this old Victorian house, this year it will probably see the fewest number of Christmas trees– with a total of seven if I stick with my plan. In past years, I’ve put up as many as thirty two trees. One in every window and then some. Sounds a little crazy– okay, a LOT crazy– but it’s something I really enjoy.

You can imagine, with that many trees, you have to be a little creative when it comes to decorating all of them. I thought I’d share some general Christmas tree decorating tips, as well as some of the imaginative solutions I’ve come up with over the years to make them unique.

First off, I can’t say I’ve ever really seen an ugly Christmas tree. (Alright, maybe a couple.) Christmas trees can be a personal and unique statement of who you are. It can also be a nostalgic trip through the past. Especially, if you’re one of those people that collects a few new ornaments each year or has ornaments made for, or by members of your family. Displaying them can be fun but also a challenge.

So let’s get started with some general tips and things to consider when planning to decorate a memorable tree. (I’ll be referring to all tree decorations, generally, as ornaments.)

  • Know what you have. Before you start your tree, take a look at the ornaments you’ll be using to refresh your memory. Size, color and quantities of similar ornaments, all play a part in the final outcome of your tree.
  • Start with an idea. Is there a theme to your tree? Will it be certain colors or highlight certain shapes or ornament styles? You may want to add to subtract certain ornaments from your plan if you have a vision for the final look.
  • What element(s) will be your constant to achieve your theme or idea? Several dozen ornaments of a specific color or style? Depending on the size of your tree, you’ll want to make sure you have enough to establish your design element  covering the tree.
  • Are you decorating the tree by yourself or will this be a family activity? If you want your tree to have a certain overall look and decorating it is going to be a family affair… you may want to pre-decorate with your base ornaments (or design element) before letting the family go to town with the rest. It’s also a good idea to keep fragile ornaments out of the hands of small children.

    Example- You have may have lots of unique family ornaments but you want your theme to be red. In order to make sure your tree has an even balance of red ornaments, you may want to space them throughout and then let the family add all the rest.

  • Ornaments don’t have to be expensive or necessarily holiday-related if they help achieve your look. Just make sure you have enough ornaments that will specifically carry your theme.
  • If you want to highlight or feature a collection of special ornaments– you will probably want to adopt the less is more philosophy or else your special ornaments are likely to get lost.
  • Make sure you balance the weight of your heavier ornaments on the sturdier branches and all around the tree. Too much weight on one side can make your tree tip over! Larger, heavier ornaments being concentrated towards the bottom is fine but you should still have a sprinkling throughout as you move towards the top.
  • Be creative and be flexible. Don’t be afraid to add another color or style if, through the process, you discover you need something more. There is no wrong or right look– it’s your tree!

Christmas Tree Themes

Mercury glass ornament tree, accented with berry picks.

Mercury glass ornament tree, accented with berry picks.

I’ve done many different themed trees over the years including Victorian trees, floral trees, mercury glass ornament trees, Santa and angel-themed trees, color based trees… Yes, even Beanie Baby trees. I know friends that do sports, hobby, Disney and occupation-themed trees as well. The possibilities are endless here. To be successful, you’ll need to have enough ornaments representing your theme– to stand out and cover your tree in balanced proportions.

Example- If you want to decorate a snowflake tree but you only have four snowflake ornaments, your theme isn’t going to be obvious. Even a dozen or so ornaments of a specific kind, can get lost on your tree if the other elements over power them.

I love mercury glass ornaments. Really nice ones can be quite expensive and I only add a few new ones each year. In order to fill out my themed tree, I’ve added other types of ornaments like painted glass, to be able to fully decorate my tree but still stick to my theme. I also add floral berry picks that add color and fill space without overpowering my featured ornaments.

Stuffing and Filling Your Tree

Try 'stuffing' the branches to fill gaps in large trees.

Try ‘stuffing’ the branches to fill gaps in large trees.

Large trees present a number of challenges including the spacing of the branches. Lower branches are frequently farther apart and if you don’t address them, can leave larger empty spaces that ornaments can’t always fill. A few years back, I adopted a method I call stuffing the tree to help solve that problem. This fills the void between branches and gives the tree a fuller look.

One of my favorite ways to stuff a tree is to use floral bunches or bouquets. The first step in decorating my tree is to stuff the voids with the bouquets, deeper in the tree. Spacing is still important. I try to fill the largest spaces first, while still spacing the bouquets throughout the tree for balance, which means also adding them where they may not be needed to fill a hole but are needs to give the tree a consistent look.

Another great inexpensive stuffing is netting or tulle. I cut or tear random-sized pieces and bunch them, stuffing the interior of the tree. It’s easy to use and manipulate between the branches, adding a soft effect to the overall look. This also might be a good solution for someone considering a flocked or specific colored tinsel tree. Tulle is available in a rainbow of colors and it’s not permanent so you could change the color of your tree every year, if you wanted– without breaking the bank.

I’ve also used pinecones, raffia and other everyday greenery to give a fuller, more natural effect.

NOTE: If your tree is especially thin, you may want to stuff your tree before you add the lights.

Though stuffing your tree may not add to your initial design or theme, it does play an important part in the final outcome. It can be subtle or dramatic, depending on what you use and how much of it.

Decorating Your Family Ornament or ‘Everything’ Tree

Family tree with only the ornaments creating the base. design element.

Family tree with only the ornaments creating the base. design element.

Since I decided to put up fewer trees this year, that leaves me with an abundance of ornaments to either use or put away.

I decided I wanted to use as many of my favorites as possible but still wanted to have a relatively designed look. Here was my solution.

This might help what many people will find they are facing when decorating the typical family Christmas tree.

  1. I gathered together some red and white ornaments, threw in a few silver ones and used them as my base colors. I inherited a collection of gold laser-cut ornaments (Danbury Mint) that I added next. I could have stopped right there and my tree was looking great. All the ornaments were spaced out with color, shape and style– balanced throughout the tree.
  2. Next I added all those favorite ornaments I love, again, paying attention to spacing. Always make sure that you don’t let one area get too heavy or unbalanced (too many, too grouped together.)
  3. I took a step back and made sure my tree still had a good balance of color, shape, etc. Moving a few ornaments, as necessary.
  4. I finished the tree, accessorizing it with berry floral picks as the finishing touch.
The finished family tree.

The finished family tree.

One of the main reasons I use a lot of floral picks in my trees is that it really helps to blend the overall tree. If you prefer a cleaner or more dramatic look, use picks sparingly or not at all.

Tree Garland or “Who Tied Up Your Tree?”

The use of garland on your tree can make or break your final designed look. Garland isn’t the easiest thing to use. I’ve seen too many trees that look like they were tied up and being held hostage as opposed to adding to the tree’s design element.

Christmas tree garland can take many forms. You rarely see the traditional popcorn and cranberry garland anymore– and personally, I’ve never had any luck stringing it together successfully. There are the metallic tinsel garlands (thick and thin), bead garlands, floral garlands, even grape vine and rafia can be used.

Do you drape the garland around the tree? In a spiral? Hang it Vertically? Do you swag it? All choices you can make depending on your skill and taste. Keep in mind that the way you hang the garland on your tree will also affect the quantity you will need.

My 7 ft. 'natural' tree with grapevine garland.

My 7 ft. ‘natural’ tree with grapevine garland.

You can add garland at any point in the decorating process but I prefer to add it first, if at all. When you wait until the end, moving and re-spacing the garland to get it just right can tangle with your ornaments and cause a big mess. You would also have to move a number of ornaments that would be hidden behind the garland. Adding it first allows you to adjust it until it’s just right, before hanging all your precious ornaments.

Christmas Trees and Pets (Children Too!)

You want to make sure you protect your loved ones, whether thay have two tiny feet or four furry paws.

  • Cats climb trees! They also like to bat their paws at dangling ornaments. I’ve know more than one person that has come home to find a toppled tree due to a kitty-climber. Make sure your tree is weighted properly and keep an eye out for felines that show too much interest in your tree.
  • Ornaments are not dog toys… or are they? My Boxers, even at ten years old, pull ornaments off my tree. I have to keep watch to make sure they leave them alone. It doesn’t matter whether they are round (like a tennis ball), plastic or stuffed (like a chew toy), or long (like a stick)– they all look like toys to them. Dogs being dogs, will chew and possibly swallow even glass ornaments so take precautions to avoid that emergency trip to the vet.
  • The rules that apply to toys with small parts should apply to your Christmas decorations. Try to avoid sharp or small ornaments that might be swallowed. Keep the more fragile ornaments out of reach. By all means, supervise small children around your Christmas tree. As hard as you try, no tree is completely childproof, so be safe!

Finally, a word about our foyer tree. We had talked about eliminating many of our other trees and getting one tall tree that would climb through the stairwell  from our foyer to the second floor. I decided to experiment this year and found I could combine tree sections from two of our 12 ft. trees and created a 20 ft. tree! The poles of the trees were the same size allowing them to be interchangeable. By bending and manipulating some of the branches, I was able to combine them pretty convincingly.

Best Tip of the Day: With a little thought and creativity– and a focus on color and balance– you can create your most beautiful Christmas tree ever!

Victorian Foyer Tree. I created this 20 ft tree from two 12 ft trees we already owned.

Victorian Foyer Tree. I created this 20 ft tree from two 12 ft trees we already owned.

Next Up: Tabletop Centerpieces

Decking the Halls For The Holidays: Part Two- Selecting and Prepping Your Christmas Tree

Live or Artificial… Large or Small… I hope you’ll find some tips here to take a little stress and frustration out of prepping your Christmas tree this year. I highly recommend adults setting up and prepping the tree prior to having young ones participate in the actual decorating.

Choosing Your Tree

There are many things to consider when selecting a new Christmas tree that rely heavily on your own personal taste and the space where it will be displayed. Height , color, fullness and shape are all considerations… pre-lit or not? There are also safety issues to consider, and things you can look for to anticipate the longevity of your tree.

Screen Shot 2013-11-23 at 4.33.42 AMLive or Artificial? For some a matter of taste, could be a cost or storage issue and for others a necessary tradition.

Live Trees- Benefits include: scent, natural and no storage concerns. I have friends that always insist on using a live Christmas tree. Part of their holiday tradition is going out and cutting their own. Very nostalgic. For those that don’t have that luxury, you are likely purchasing a tree that was cut and stored in a refrigerated truck back in August. No wonder there is often little scent and the needles barely make it past Christmas Eve! I’m not going to say a lot here, there is a lot of information online about things to consider and to watch out for when selecting a healthy, safe, live Christmas tree. Remember, the cost does not indicate the freshness!

Artificial Trees– The possibilities here are endless. Height, color, fullness, thick or thin… it’s out there if you look hard enough. Benefits include: Reusable, many are made from recycled materials, more cost effective over time and they are considered safer to display than live trees.

Best Tip of the Day: Strapped for Cash? Did you know there are lots of people giving away trees on Craigslist.com?

There are affordable options out there but artificial Christmas trees can be quite expensive. Remember no tree is perfect, live or artificial. Here are a few things to consider when purchasing a new artificial tree:

  • Fullness and strength of branches. When buying a tree online it’s really difficult to check the quality and details. You want sturdy branches that have lots of tips for a full look.
  • Check the tips for needle drops. Better quality trees tend to hold their needles because of how they are manufactured. Cup the tip (a finger of the branch) and run your hand back and forth on it. You should little or no needles fall off on a new, good quality tree. Overtime, of course, the needles will become more fragile. I have one tree that is 10 years old and it is so well made, the only way I can get any needles to fall off is to pluck them off.
  • Pre-Lit or Not? Personally, I prefer a tree that is not pre-lit. Even though the lights are hidden in the branches and it makes it easier to prep the tree, the light will inevitably stop working. Finding that one missing bulb or short in the wire in nearly impossible. Removing the lights if they stop working can be difficult but you can always add strings of lights to the tree if they do stop working. NOTE: Pre-lit trees can be very, very heavy. Something to consider for moving and storage.
  • Branches. Check to see if the branches are individual and have to be added one by one or if the branches are all hinged to the pole. A tree with individual branches can be stored easier if space is an issue. You have to be careful because the plastic fittings where the branches attach to the pole can crack if there is too much weight or force on the branch. The plastic also becomes more brittle over time causing breakage.
  • Collapsible Pop Up Trees? They do exist! I’ve seen them in traditional evergreen styles and collapsible tinsel garland trees, that seem to be in most of the stores this year. These aren’t usually very full and most can’t hold many or even any ornaments. They are easy to set up and to store but I wouldn’t expect that these would last more than a year or two.
  • As always, shop after Christmas to get your best bargains. Every tree I’ve used for the past 15 years was purchased after Christmas for 70-90% off!

Prepping Your Tree

Decorating your Christmas tree is the fun part. No one looks forward to setting up and prepping the tree, which for me, starts when I take it out of the box, through adding the lights.

Tree Stands. Whether you are using a live or artificial tree, it’s very important to have a good, strong tree stand that is the right size for your tree. It’s also probably a good idea to make sure your live tree stand can hold plenty of water. Most artificial trees come with stands appropriate for that tree. In rare cases, I’ve had to find a better stand so the tree would stand safely and securely in place. If you are reusing an old tree and have had tipping issues– you need a better stand.

IMG_5190

Before

Fluffing the Branches. This obviously only applies to artificial trees. Once your tree is out of the box and assembled in its stand, you need to fluff out all the branches before you add any lights or ornaments. I highly recommend wearing a cheap pair of work gloves during this process to avoid scratches and skin irritation.

Start at the bottom of the tree and work your way around and then up, fanning the tips on every branch as you go so they aren’t laying flat and clumped together. This accomplishes two things:

After

After

1) It makes the tree appear to be much fuller; and 2) It will actually help stabilize and support the surrounding branches.

(If the tree still looks thin or sparse, I’ll cover what you can do to add fullness in the next blog post– and this works for both artificial and live trees.)

Now you are ready for the lights.

Lighting Your Tree.

Stringing your lights on the tree can be one of the most frustrating parts about decorating. I’ll talk about the different types available in a minute– but here are some things to consider when actually lighting the tree: If you prefer a more sparse or uniformly decorated tree, then you want to try have your lights evenly spaced without holes or dark spots in your tree. If you use a lot of decorations, you don’t have to be as concerned with this as some of the decorations are inevitably going to block some of the lights anyway.

I find to get the best coverage, you should move around the tree completely, all in one direction. Save a few strings of lights to fill any troublesome dark spots once this step is complete. I personally prefer to to move around the tree in circles, from the bottom moving up in a slow spiral (horizonally) instead of stringing the lights up and down (vertically) on the tree. I have tried winding lights around the branches to help hide the strings, only to find: a) it’s very time consuming; b) you need a lot more lights; and c) you still end up needing to run additional strings around the tree to fill the dark spots. After I run the lights completely around the tree, I’ll take my extra strings and move around the tree diagonally, to hit the dark spots and to try and avoid creating a noticeable light pattern.

Screen Shot 2013-11-23 at 4.39.06 AMLight Types.

LED lights are the newest technology and also the most costly to purchase. The good news is that after a few years, the energy savings will outweigh the initial investment. If you are purchasing white, pay attention whether you are getting cool or warm white. There is a definite difference and you’ll want to avoid accidentally buying both. I’m in the process of switching over to LED lights completely. One of the best things about LED lights is that you can connect up to 40 strings together end to end, eliminating a lot of extra outlets and cords.

Mini lights make up the bulk of what most people currently use today. They can still have different covers or shapes but if you use different styles on the same tree. Make sure you spread  out each type evenly or you will likely be disappointed with the result. Most mini lights can be connected end to end with a maximum of 3 strings without blowing fuses on the plugs. Mini lights are currently the most affordable and come in the largest variety of colors and styles.

C-Series lights should not be used indoors, period. These are the larger old fashioned bulbs. They are still available but designated for outdoor use only. They can get extremely hot and become a fire hazard, particularly on live trees. I will admit that I have used them on an artificial tree in the past… and they melted the needles on the branches that they were touching.

Multifunction Mini or LED lights. If you want twinkling lights, flashing or fading these are the ones you want. If you use these, you need to run them around your tree more random than uniform and overlap them to get the desired effect. One of the drawbacks is that they cannot be connected end to end and must each be plugged in separately.

White, Colored Lights or Both?.

Completely based on your individual taste, adding colored lights to your tree can create several things you’ll want to watch for. If you use all one color or use the multicolored strings, you should be fine. If you mix colored strings of lights, you need to make sure you evenly distribute the different colors evenly throughout the tree. If you don’t, you could end up with unwanted patches or blotches or color.

The other day I notice one store selling trendy pink, lime green and lavender lights (the wire was colored too.) If you decide to go with something trendy, keep in mind the cost, longevity of the trend and by all means, make sure you purchase enough to finish the job. Keep in mind that 6 strings may work this year but next year you may need 8 and they are no longer available. Then what? Back to the drawing board.

AND, make sure the lights you are purchasing are green wire and not white wire! You may need to look in the box to be sure. White wire strings of lights are very difficult, if not impossible to hide on a traditional green tree.

Now you’re finally ready to decorate!

After you have all your lights on the tree, you might want to take a moment to vacuum up any dropped needles so they don’t get tracked all over the house, especially if your family will be decorating the tree together.

One Last Thought– Say NO to Canned Snow!! The only situation where this might be a good idea would be a live tree. If you do, try and spray it outdoors or take careful precautions to protect furniture and walls if you must spray the tree indoors. Never spray canned snow on an artificial tree unless you plan on throwing it out after that use. And please, please, PLEASE… only spray a tree BEFORE you add lights or ornaments. The spray will ruin them for future use. If you want the snow effect on your tree, buy a flocked tree. They are some other options that I’ll share with you in the next installment.

If you have any questions or comments, please contact me! I’d be happy to help.

Next Up: Decorating Your Tree– To Stuff or Not to Stuff?