The Recorder – Decorating from the kitchen

Popcorn and cranberry, apples and cinnamon, citrus and spice — these are just a few of the culinary gems of the season.
Versatile in their ability to nourish us, they are also aesthetically pleasing with their vibrant colors, interesting shapes and unique textures. With these ordinary ingredients, you can create natural, handmade garlands and ornaments that are elegant in their simplicity and festive in their appeal.

As season turns to end-of-year holidays, trim out your home and give them as gifts; here are three ideas for decorating from the kitchen.

Popcorn and cranberry

Step back in time to the early history of Christmas trees in America and you’ll find tannenbaums decorated with garlands of popcorn, sometimes dyed in bright colors and strung with nuts and berries.

A simple and inexpensive decorating technique, popcorn and cranberry may seem rudimentary, but these old-fashioned garlands are quite striking with the puffy shape of popcorn and the jewel-like color of the cranberries, reminiscent of red berry on a snowy branch.

Making these garlands takes time, which is an offering to slow down, to listen to music or an audio book, to sit round the table with family.

Materials: Sewing needle and thread; popcorn; whole cranberries.

Instructions: Pop the popcorn — make a bowl to eat with your favorite toppings and make a bowl to leave plain, letting it sit for a few hours or overnight to become stale. Prepare a needle and thread — double the thread to give it more heft. Make a large knot, leaving a tail of a few inches to form loops for hanging or to connect to another strand.

Start the garland with a cranberry, as this helps secure the knot in place. Poke the needle through one of the cranberry ends, and for popcorn, poke the needle right through the middle.

Tips: Use the biggest pieces of popcorn and make the garlands 2 to 3 feet at a time. Though popcorn is delicate, it is surprisingly hardy and will last through the holiday season. Hang festive strands on tree or mantel, in a window, or over a doorway. And when the holidays are over, bring the garland outside for birds and other critters.

Applesauce and cinnamon

Baked dough ornaments have been a Yuletide decoration for centuries.

Shaped into stars, snowflakes, hearts, dreidels, trees, birds, reindeer and angels, baked dough can be integrated into your holiday decorating. Use finished pieces to create ornaments, embellish glass jars and wreaths, or add to holiday gift wrapping.

String together in a garland, interlacing with other details like cranberries or cinnamon sticks, fabric and felt, beads, bells and baubles, or found objects from nature, such as pinecones, dried flowers, evergreens and bark.

This easy, four-ingredient dough bakes into a rich mahogany that is beautiful plain and unadorned. Its spicy scent is a holiday bouquet.

A multi-step endeavor, this project invites you to settle into the art of making and to loosen the tethers of your imagination.

Materials: applesauce cinnamon dough* (see recipe below); cookie cutters; tying supplies (ribbon, string, yarn, twine, thread, wire, dental floss, fishing line); toothpick. Optional: parchment paper; embellishments (culinary, craft or natural items); adhesive (craft glue, hot glue); needle and thread.

Instructions: First, make the applesauce dough. Mix 1 cup cinnamon (about 4½ ounces), ¾ cup applesauce, 2 tablespoons glue, and 1 tablespoon powdered cloves. Combine in a bowl or in a plastic bag for mess-free mixing. Knead the dough on a surface dusted with cinnamon until thoroughly blended.

Breaking off small pieces at a time, work the dough in your hands like Play-doh, until it’s warm and smooth. Then use the heel of your hand to press the dough flat about ¼ inch thick. Use your fingers and palm to stretch the dough to the size needed for the cookie cutter.

Cut out the shape and smooth any rough edges with a wet fingertip. Or forgo the cookie cutter and freestyle your own designs.

Lay shapes on a baking sheet covered with parchment paper. If you don’t have parchment paper, just use an ungreased pan and monitor for any sticking. Gather up the dough scraps and start the process again.

Add any embellishments that you want cooked into the pieces, like peppercorns, chocolate chips, raisins or seeds. Press them gently into the dough. (For example, I used peppercorns to make eyes for doves, buttons for gingerbread people, and noses for reindeer.)

Now, think how the pieces will be strung — at the top, bottom, center or sides — and place holes accordingly. Use a toothpick (or chopstick, skewer, pencil) to create a hole, making sure it goes all the way through to the back side, and that it is big enough for the string or ribbon you plan to use. Holes are strongest when there is some buffering space between the hole and the edge, especially on smaller pieces.

Bake in the oven at 200 degrees Fahrenheit for about two hours, depending on their size. Turn once or twice throughout the baking process, monitoring for doneness. They will feel mostly hard when ready. Be careful not to overcook as the pieces might crack. Any lingering softness will harden as they cool. Though they smell delicious, they are not edible. Leave cutouts plain or decorate as desired.

Tips: A rolling pin does not work with this dough, as it contributes to crumbling. Work in small batches and with your hands.

Make extra in case some break. For heavy garlands, try dental floss or fishing line. Breathe deep as the warm, aromatic scent of cinnamon and clove fills your kitchen.

Citrus and spice

Citrus and spice complement each other beautifully. Citrus is bright and cheerful, while spices are warm and aromatic.

Pair them together to make rustic ornaments and garlands that exude an earthy essence. Craft ornaments with a dried orange slice, star of anise and cinnamon stick, tied with hemp twine.

Fashion a garland from dried oranges, bay leaves, cranberries, cinnamon sticks, pinecones and balsam sprigs. Improvise with what you have and get creative.

Materials: Whole oranges; spices (such as cinnamon sticks, bay leaves, star anise); cranberries; binding materials (ribbon, string, yarn, twine, embroidery thread, wire, dental floss, fishing line); sewing needle and thread; found objects from nature (optional).

Instructions: First prepare the oranges by slicing into rounds ¼ inch thick.

Place directly on the oven rack, which allows air to circulate around them. (You can put a baking pan on the rack below to catch any leaked juice.) Bake in the oven at 200 degrees Fahrenheit for two to four hours, turning every 30 minutes so they don’t stick. Keep checking on them. The oranges are done when they are mostly dried, but not completely withered, and still retain some color.

Allow to cool.

Gather the rest of the materials you want to play with. Consider color, shape, texture and intent.

It’s helpful to have a few options on hand for tying ornaments and garlands, from needle and thread to ribbon and wire.

Then, let your imagination run wild.

Tips: Incorporate some of the baked dough shapes from the above project.

Invest a few dollars in a spool of green floral wire — it is an indispensable and highly versatile craft item.

Try drying other fruits like lemons, limes, grapefruits or apples. Add found objects from nature such as pinecones, dried flowers, seeds, evergreen, rosemary sticks and birch bark.

Take joy in the simple, natural and handmade. Happy holidays from my kitchen to yours.

Cheli Mennella is a writer, yogi and naturalist who lives with her family in Buckland. Connect with her at [email protected].