bokeh christmas tree

I never thought much about what our first Christmas would be like—which is funny because, for a classic overthinker like me, it’s rare not to think about something. Maybe it was because of how big October seemed and how faraway December felt.

first christmas

The first week, we bought a six-foot Fraser fir, purchased from a giant red-and-white tent outside Home Depot, a tree that smells like the forest and sheds needles every day. We stowed it in the back of Tim’s car, alongside a poinsettia and a fresh wreath from Aldi, and put it in our living room, inside a plastic stand Tim hadn’t used for four years and topped by white bulb lights I’d hung at that blog birthday party I had in 2009.

advent calendar

We hung a homemade advent calendar (inspiration: summer harms) on our dining room window, made of leftover wedding kraft envelopes and filled with holiday activities each of us wrote on slips of paper, mixed together and inserted randomly.

The first day was kisses every hour; the second was a thankful list to hang on the fridge.

We made a bed by the tree and read “The Gift of the Magi.”

christmas craft night

We had some of our favorite kids over to make ornaments, just simple circles cut out and hung with red string, after which we ate popcorn and watched a movie about a valiant mouse.


We took our burlap wedding runners and made stockings.

burlap Christmas wrapping

Then we took more and wrapped gifts.

pie day saturday

And last Saturday, we had a holiday pie party at our house, where everyone brought a pie to share—lemon meringue, key lime meringue, candied apple, pumpkin.

For our contributions, Tim and I made two tarts: David Lebovitz’s dark chocolate (the perfect dessert for incorporating some coffee Starbucks sent me a few months ago):

chocolate tart

And Meg Gordon’s brown butter cranberry with a hazelnut crust, beautifully Christmassy with its bright red berries and set on a nutty cookie-like crust:

cranberry tart

And so here we are, less than two weeks from Christmas Day, in the throes of new traditions and new memories, and I’m certain of one thing:

I may not have thought much about what our Christmas would be, but I know I will think, often, of what it was.

Brown Butter Cranberry Hazelnut Tart
Lightly adapted from Meg Gordon

Crust Ingredients:

1 1/4 cups white spelt flour
1/2 cup organic powdered sugar
1/4 cup hazelnuts
1/4 teaspoon salt
9 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes and chilled
1 large egg yolk
1 to 2 tablespoons of ice-cold water

Filling Ingredients:
1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 large eggs
1 3/4 cups plus 1 tablespoon Sucanat
The zest of one medium lemon
1/4 cup white spelt flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 1/4 cups fresh or frozen cranberries
1/4 cup water

For the crust:
Generously butter a pie pan (or a 9-inch square tart pan with a removable bottom). In a food processor, grind the hazelnuts by pulsing on/off for about 30 seconds until they’re a smooth medium-grind: not chunky but not a nut butter either. Add the flour, Sucanat and salt into the food processor and give them a quick pulse so they’re all blended together.

Add the cubed butter and cut into the dry ingredients with an on/off pulse until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Add egg yolk and 1 tablespoon of ice water and blend until moist clumps form (don’t allow dough to form ball). If your mixture is still too dry, add another tablespoon of ice water. Press dough into bottom and up the sides of prepared pie plate. Cover and chill for 1 hour.

Preheat the oven to 350°F. After crust has chilled, bake until barely golden brown, about 15 minutes. Because I was adapting this recipe from a tart pan to a pie plate, after I pulled it out of the oven, I gently flattened the crust throughout to make it look the way I wanted. Essentially it needs to be able to hold a custard.

~Make the filling:
In a small saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat until it starts to turn golden and smell nutty and toasty (about 5 minutes). Remove this brown butter (heaven!!) from the burner and stir in vanilla. Let it cool.

In a medium bowl, whisk the eggs with 1 cup of the Sucanat and the lemon zest. Slowly pour the brown butter into the egg mixture, whisking the entire time so as to not allow your eggs to cook. Whisk in the flour and salt. Pour the filling into the prebaked pie crust and bake for another 20 to 30 minutes, or until golden and set (not jiggly in the center). Transfer to a rack to cool, about 1 1/2 hours.

Make the cranberry topping:
Meanwhile, in a saucepan, combine the remaining 3/4 cup of Sucanat with the cranberries and water. Bring to a simmer over medium-heat and cook until the cranberries just begin to pop and the sugar dissolves, about 5 minutes. (This is pretty cool.) Pour the cranberries into a bowl and refrigerate until cool, roughly 1 hour.

Drain the cranberries using a slotted spoon or a fine sieve and arrange them on top of the tart (the cranberry liquid will be discarded). Cut the tart into wedges and serve.

Note: This tart can be kept room temperature overnight and refrigerated up to two days.

Dark Chocolate Tart
Adapted from David Lebovitz

1 1/4 cup (250 g) Sucanat
6 tablespoons (90 ml) warm Starbucks Breakfast Blend coffee
4 ounces (115 g) unsalted butter, cubed, at room temperature
pinch of sea salt
6 ounces (170 g) dark chocolate, chopped (I used Trader Joe’s 70%)
2 large eggs
1/4 cup (35 g) white spelt flour
1 teaspoon bourbon vanilla extract
*1 prebaked pie crust

1. Preheat oven to 350ºF (180ºC.)

2. Spread the Sucanat in an even layer in the bottom of a large, heavy-duty saucepan or Dutch oven. Cook the sugar over moderate heat until the edges liquefy and being to caramelize. Use a heatproof utensil to gently drag the liquefied sugar toward the center of the pan, encouraging the sugar to melt evenly.

3. Once the sugar is melted, it was caramelize rather quickly. When it starts to smoke, but before it burns, turn off the heat and stir in the coffee. (The mixture will bubble and seize a bit. Be sure to avert your face and you may wish to wear oven mitts and, if possible, find someone else to help you because I found this was a two-person job.)

4. If the caramel has seized up in places, stir it gently over low heat until smooth. Then add the butter and salt, and stir until melted, then stir in chocolate until smooth.

5. Mix in the eggs, then the spelt flour. Stir in the vanilla extract.

6. Pour the mixture into the prebaked pie crust, then bake for 15 to 20 minutes, just until the filling starts to rise and crack at the edges but the center is still jiggly. Do not overbake.

Remove from oven and let cool completely before slicing.

*For the pie crust, I used my trusty standby, made with sprouted wheat flour this time (this recipe never fails!) and in a tart pan. I baked it at 350 degrees for 15 minutes, then let it cool before pouring the chocolate into it.

Shanna Mallon

Shanna Mallon started Food Loves Writing back in 2008, as a way to remember her grandma and write about her life through food. Since then it's become a place leading her to a lifestyle of eating whole foods, a new home in Nashville and the love of her life, Tim. Follow Shanna on Twitter @foodloves, keep up with Food Loves Writing on Facebook and stay inspired with the monthly newsletter.

This Post Has 26 Comments

  1. Jacqui

    so sweet. this is Christmas – love and light, family and friends, and pie. love that you used your wedding burlap to make stockings and wrap gifts. Happy Holidays!

    1. Shannalee

      right? I credit Pinterest with that burlap-wrapping inspiration. : )

  2. Rachel

    Whoo hoo, pie party!! So glad to be a part of it! :)

    1. Shannalee

      Thanks again for coming and for bringing your pumpkin pie! You’re so easy to be with–looking forward to seeing you again soon!

  3. Lan

    this is so very sweet. and incidentally, my darling love read The Gift of the Magi to me just last night, i’d never heard of it before.
    and that dark chocolate tart has been on my list since it was posted last month.

    1. Shannalee

      Make it. AMAZING.

  4. Joanna

    Ah! I think I just started crying a little. You two are so sweet and it warms my heart!

    Also: Thankyou thankyou thankyou for this dark chocolate tart recipe. This girl needs it.

    1. Shannalee

      Aw, thanks, Joanna! And that dark chocolate tart was so so so so good.

  5. Tim

    Wonderfully written!

  6. Michelle

    Your first Christmas is so sweet! I love the traditions you’ve started!

    1. Shannalee

      Thanks, Michelle!

  7. Jacqui

    My husband and I do the same thing with an advent calendar each year too! It really makes us feel present during the holiday month, since we get so busy with work. These pies sound amazing! I’m going to have to make the cranberry one, thanks!

    1. Shannalee

      You do? I love that! : ) And I totally agree that it’s a great way to stay connected when things get really busy.

  8. Caitlin

    We’ve been doing such big things with our Christmases (last year, Asheville, this year, Ireland), that I can’t wait for next year. Maybe then we’ll start our own traditions!

    1. Shannalee

      Ireland! How exciting!

  9. Dana

    It’s posts like these that make me wish I could keep nuts in the house (darn my Mister’s allergies).

    Maybe I could make this next time I go to my mum’s (and then get thorougly clean afterward.

    Looks divine!

    1. Shannalee

      Ha! Or you could just stick to the chocolate tart which, nut-free, is heaven!

  10. Michele

    What a beautiful post. Makes me want to just stop for a minute and think about what I can do to make this Christmas special before it’s too late.

    1. Shannalee

      I love hearing that, Michele! Merry Christmas!

  11. Kim

    Oh, I feel like I say this with every post, but how lovely! I, too, have been thinking a lot about holiday traditions lately. This is our first Engaged Holiday Season, and next year will be our first as Marrieds, and it just gets a girl thinking, doesn’t it? Our families have such different traditions (because, duh, Chanukkah vs. Christmas. Not the same holiday) that I am really having fun thinking of how we want to combine them and start our own. We visit both families every year (the benefit of having different holidays), and decorate our own home with dreidels and stockings (and a 7 foot tree this year!), and I really love creating new traditions together. It’s one of my favorite soon-to-be-married things :) Plus, the colder weather and general merriment of the holiday season is perfect for getting cozy and thinking of traditions and family.

  12. Laken

    This post just warmed my heart. I love everything about it.

    And I’ll have to admit, I’ve been overthinking what our first married Christmas will be like next year. So much so that I’m afraid I started looking past our first engaged Christmas. Luckily, I have a fiancé to remind me of how much I love this season and how I shouldn’t overlook it.

    Wishing you and Tim the happiest and warmest first married Christmas :)

  13. Shannalee

    @Kim and @Laken – Love hearing from you two engaged ladies. : ) Tim and I never had an engaged Christmas, but I bet that’s pretty special, too—hope you both have a wonderful holiday, including anticipations of the next one!

  14. Eva

    Oh, how I love your traditions, your pictures and your writings.
    It’s al just so wonderfull, romantic and creative!
    My heart just melted a little bit.

    1. Shannalee

      Thank you for that sweet comment, Eva! : )

  15. Pingback: Mostly Raw Chocolate Ice Cream | Food Loves Writing | test site

  16. Pingback: Saturday at the Nashville Flea Market | Food Loves Writing

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>