Category Archives: Handmade Holidays

Handmade Holidays


One of the ways to simplify the holidays is by assessing your resources as far as gift giving goes. I am not going to go into the larger debate of the necessity of this custom. It is a long standing tradition dating back to antiquity and it makes me happy. Enough said.

The trick is not to let it stress you out. If you have more money than time, it probably isn’t a good idea to stretch yourself by starting a lot of projects. There are plenty of craft shows and local merchants to support this time of year. I actually plan on listing some things I have for sale locally, here on the blog next week.

That is definitely not the case around here this year. I have next to no budget, but I have time on my hands. I have been Pinterest-ing up a storm, looking for homemade gift ideas that I can make from my herb closet and the  piles of neglected craft supplies around here.

Take for example today’s project. I already had the materials kicking around. So for the price of one of these at the store, I can make six. (Honestly, I had the stainless steel straws, too. I planned on doing this last year.) There are a lot of patterns out there for crocheting cozies and sewing the covers, but I wanted to keep it quick, simple and cheap.  I have a lot of old wool sweaters saved.

If I were going to give these as gifts, I would tuck them in a basket with a beverage tea blend that would be good cold, although you can use these like insulated mugs for hot beverages, too.  Another fun thing to give with these would be a bitters blend and some sparkling water.

I will post a few of my projects on here over the next few weeks.  But I have a few ideas on the blog in the Handmade Holidays category. also.

Candied Orange Peel

I love orange peels more than I enjoy eating oranges. I use dried orange peels in my tea blends. I even clean with vinegar I’ve infused with orange peels.

Candied orange peels are like a dream come true for me, because I can literally snack on my favorite part of the orange. They replace an after dinner mint as a good digestif, too.

Making this confection doesn’t take as long as you might think.
To begin with you will need to have some sort of simple syrup made up ahead of time to candy orange peels the way I do.   Yesterday I made pine syrup because of Kiva’s post the other day.  In the past, I have used chocolate syrup and vanilla.  Chocolate is probably my favorite, but I have a sentimental attachment to chocolate oranges.

Now you will need some organic oranges.  I started with four today.  Peel the oranges with a vegetable peeler to get strips that are fairly free of the white pith.


Try to use just the decent size strips. Some will break and peel but don’t worry this pile of pith and bits of peel goes into a chocolate-orange bitters recipe. I tend to run cold, constitutionally, so orange peels are one of my favorite bitters due to their warming qualities.


Once you have your strips of orange peel you are going to want to blanch them. To do this put them in a saucepan of cold water and bring the water to a boil. Strain this water off and blanch them again. This will mitigate some of the bitterness, although honestly I like bitter so I only blanch mine once.


You can use the water you strain off for decocting a beverage. I have a pan with some pine, rosemary and astragalus, simmering on the stove.

Once you have your blanched orange peels you are going to want to put them in a saute pan, cover them with simple syrup and cook them until they become a little more translucent.


This takes some experimentation. If you cook them too long, they start to curl up and are very brittle. You want them to be a little chewy.  The rule of thumb is about three minutes, but it really depends on the size of your strips.   After they have simmered in the syrup, remove them and roll them in sugar, making sure both sides are coated.  Leave them on the rack to dry for a bit, then store in a covered container.


Avoiding Seasonal Overwhelm

overwhelmTo switch gears a little, I would like to revisit managing stress, anxiety and anger. Over the years, I’ve written various posts about this topic.  If there is one thing that anyone who works in wellness can tell you, it is that chronic stress is one of the biggest challenges modern humans face.

Emotions can run high this time of year, as we approach the upcoming festivities with varying degrees of anticipation or trepidation.  Normal everyday stress is compounded by additional feelings this time of year that can create anger or anxiety for many people. It seems appropriate to do some proactive thinking about how to avoid those holiday meltdowns.

Anger is an emotion we all experience from time-to-time. Like the stress response, anger is also initiated by the amygdala. This structure is designed to trigger immediate physical reactions, long before any information reaches the cortex and good judgment takes hold. This is important to understand because it is why we often have irrational outbursts when we become angry.

When the amygdala is triggered by an upsetting event, neurotransmitters immediately trigger the release of catecholamines, which boost our energy levels but deplete our body of sugars. This is why some people shake when they are angry, or frightened. Soon after a cascade of reactions in the body trigger the release of hormones such as adrenalin and noradrenalin, prep our body for confrontation.

It is very similar to the stress response in that we are supercharged for action. Muscles tighten and tense. Our heart rate and respiration quicken. We might grind our teeth or clench our fists. Chemicals in our body, which cause blood to clot more quickly, kick in. A study done in 2004 showed that people who are habitually angry have a “10 percent greater risk of developing a heart flutter called atrial fibrillation” and are more likely to experience strokes. (1)

Anger affects mental functioning, as well. When we are in this highly charged state, memory becomes impaired. This is why it can be quite difficult to remember the things you say when you are truly angry. This adrenalin can stay with us for days. It can hinder our ability to concentrate and it shortens our fuse. We might notice that we start picking fights over things that would not normally upset us.

It can be difficult to distinguish between the stress response and the anger response. A significant difference is that instead of increasing alertness and awareness of our surroundings, anger may cause us to focus our attention on that which has made us angry-whether a person or a situation. Therefore, if you find your brain fixating on one person or situation, it is likely that generalized stress is not the culprit.

It is even more difficult to distinguish between anger and fear. Fear has a very similar physiological profile as anger. Some people even become aggressive in the face of fear which leads to anger being considered a possible symptom of anxiety. One way to differentiate fear from anger is by paying attention to the electrical conductivity of your body. People who are angry tend become hot and flushed, while people who are afraid are more likely to feel cold and look pale.

Thankfully, we don’t have to engage in too much deep introspection to be able to begin to address the physiological effects of these states of being. There are practices that we can incorporate into our daily life which reduce stress and feelings of anxiety or anger.  There is still time to incorporate some of them into your daily regimen, before the holiday overwhelm strikes.

Abdominal Breathing
Most Americans breathe improperly from the chest, which can limit the amount of oxygen we take in and may trigger the sympathetic nervous system. Breathing deeply from your abdomen is important to your health because it promotes optimal oxygen exchange. This in turn promotes relaxation and releases tension in the body. The diaphragm also serves a secondary role in helping to promote lymphatic circulation. It is a good to try to break yourself of the habit of breaking from your chest. If you find that difficult, even 15-20 minutes of daily focused abdominal breathing has benefits. It is especially useful to use this practice to calm down in a moment of overwhelm.

Remember to take time to relax.  There is so much truly lovely holiday music out there. Pipe calming soothing sounds throughout your day.  Take long candlelit baths.  Have a hot herbal footsoak.   Do Sudoku.   Whatever you find relaxing, take time to do it.

Daily exercise helps to alleviate stress and work off nervous energy. Walking is especially good for this if you can take the time to walk away from a situation in which you are angry. There are additional benefits to walking in nature. In recent years a great deal of study has been devoted to the effects of green spaces on human well-being, leading one group of researchers to coin the term “Vitamin G” in reference to time spent in green places. Spending time in nature, gardening or forest bathing, has shown to mitigate the effects of stress. Japanese researchers studying the traditional practice of forest bathing or Shinrin-yoku concluded “forest environments promote lower concentrations of cortisol, lower pulse rate, and lower blood pressure, greater parasympathetic nerve activity, and lower sympathetic nerve activity.” (2) Swiss researchers found that gardening leads to decreases in cortisol which “promote neuroendocrine and affective restoration from stress.” (3)

Traditional Meditation
Traditional Meditation involves cultivating stillness in the body and concentrating the mind on one thought. This website has some good tips for beginners. I admit that I personally do not resonate with traditional mediation practices, as I tend to have difficulties being still. I do find guided meditation useful at bedtime.

Moving Meditation
When I was taking a class on anxiety with Sarah Van Hoy a couple of years ago, class discussion turned to the fact that meditation can occur while moving. Yoga can be a very meditative practice. Tai Chi, Aikido and Qigong are all examples of ancient martial arts, which involve breath work, intention and flowing movements. There are also guided meditations specifically designed for use while walking.

Drumming as Meditation
The repetitive nature of the drum beat leads to a synchronous pattern of neural firing in the auditory pathway, which is perceived in the brain. Scientific studies have verified the physiological and psychological effects of this perception. In one study, researchers measured alpha waves by means of EEG to study response to tempo and mode of music concluded, “tempo was found to modulate the emotional ratings with faster tempi being more associated with emotions of anger and happiness as opposed to slow tempi, which induced stronger feelings of sadness and serenity.”  (4)  Another recent study successfully used alpha wave fluctuations to measure mood states. (5) Alpha waves are a brain wave which range from 8-12 c.p.s and are indicative of a state of “relaxed wakefulness” and are typical of the type of brain waves present during meditation. (6)

1) New York Times, “National Briefing: Science and Health: The Lethal Effects of Anger,” New York Times, March 2, 2004.
2) Groenewegen, et al., “Vitamin G: effects of green space on health, well-being and social safety” BMC Public Health, 6 (2006): 10.1186/1471-2458-6-149.
3) Agnes Van Den Berg, “Gardening Promotes Neuroendocrine and Affective Restoration from Stress,” Journal of Health Psychology 16(2011): 3.
4) K. Trochidis, and E. Bigand,  “Investigation of the effect of mode and tempo on emotional responses to music using EEG power asymmetry.” Journal of Psychophysiology, 27(2013): 146.
5)  Chen, X., Takahashi, I., et al.  “Psychological responses to sound stimuli evaluated by alpha wave fluctuations.” Journal of Psychophysiology, 27(2013):129.
6)  R McClellan. The Healing Forces of Music: History Theory and Practice. (Lincoln: Excel. 2000), 910.

Bitters: From Medicine Cabinet to Bar Shelf…and back again

Angelica is a popular aromatic bitter with carminative and spasmolytic actions. Candied angelica stems are also a tasty treat.

Angelica is a popular aromatic bitter with carminative and spasmolytic actions. Candied angelica stems are also a tasty treat.

There has been a lot of talk of bitters lately as promoting digestion, but many times people are interested in how exactly that occurs.In a nutshell, when we taste “bitter’ it triggers a physiological process in the body.

Salivary secretion is stimulated as is the production of gastric secretions such as pepsin.  Pepsin is an enzyme responsible for breaking proteins in the stomach down into peptides. The presence of these peptides in turn stimulate the release of gastrin. Gastrin is a hormone which stimulates the release of gastric acids and cholecystokinin.  This hormone, in turn,  stimulates the pancreas and gall bladder to release digestive enzymes and bile.

This net result of all this biochemistry is improved digestion and relief of indigestion.  Some herbs have additional actions such as being spasmolytic which means  they relieve spasms in smooth muscle or carminative which means they help to dispel gas.

The earliest documented medicinal use of bitter herbs was in Ancient Egypt where archeologists have been able to determine that herbs and tree resins were steeped in grape wine. All of the major botanical medicine traditions: Greek, Chinese and Āyurveda incorporated the use of bitter herbs.

In Italy, particularly, the preparations evolved from being medicinal preparations to being routinely served with meals. Amaro  literally means ‘bitter’.  The Italian apéritif Nocino was a medicinal bitter preparation which found its way to Italian monasteries via wandering Celts.  Historians maintain that bitter herbs brewed into malt liquors were used to “diminish the noxious effects of such potations.”

Apéritifs were  served  before meals to stimulate the appetite while digestifs were served afterward to aid digestion.  Digestifs tend to be more sweet and heavy than apéritifs, which are light and dry.

In Britain, bitter preparations began to appear that were made by steeping herbs in alcohol which extracts and concentrates their flavorful constituents. Lash’s Bitters Company began marketing these medicinal preparations in the mid-19th century but after the company moved to San Francisco they found a market for their bitters as a bar room staple in the form and other companies followed suit. Many remember the familiar bottle of Angostura bitters in the liquor closet.

So how does one use bitters “medicinally”?  Traditionally the bitters blends would have been added to soda water. Tonic water is technically a bitters preparation being made with cinchona bark.  However I don’t tend to view them as medicine,  I see them as just another component of a health promoting diet.

Make Your Own Bitters

Bitters by Stephany Hoffelt Iowa City Herbalist

Don’t overlooks the usefulness of these bitter preparations during meal preparation.  A few dashes can add amazing   depth of flavor to your favorite recipe.

Making  homemade bitters can be quite simple and while there are more complex methods of making bitters, the following simple recipes will produce good results.

Traditional Bitters
2 tbsp. dried orange peel
Zest of one orange
¼ sour dried cherries
6 cardamom pods
1 ½ tablespoons cinnamon chips
1 tsp. fennel seeds
1 vanilla bean
¼ tsp. whole cloves
¼ tsp. quassia chips (I substitute dried angelica root.)
¼ tsp. gentian root
¼ tsp. powdered black walnut leaf
2 ½ cups rye whiskey (honestly I use Irish whiskey, but rye comes closer to Angostura)

Put your ingredients in  jar and pour the alcohol over them until it reaches the top. Put the lid on tightly and let this steep for  at least three weeks.

Strain the liquid into a clean jar and set aside.

Now pour just enough filtered water over the ingredients in the jar to cover them. Add 1 tablespoon of cherry syrup or honey. Let this steep for three days, strain and add to the alcohol mixture you set aside.

Cranberry Orange Bitters
Zest of one orange
¼ cup dried orange peel
¼ cup fresh cranberries – crushed
½ teaspoon coriander seed
½ tsp. whole allspice
½ teaspoon gentian powder
1 slice of  fresh ginger root
2 ¼ cup 100 proof vodka

Use same process as above.

Angelica Bitters
3 oz. fresh angelica root
1 cups fresh basil leaves (common garden variety)
1 cups fresh rosemary
2 tbsp. dried orange peel  and zest from one orange
2 tbsp. fenugreek seed

Place the herbs in a blender and pour enough 100 proof vodka over the herbs to cover them. Blend the ingredients well. Pour them in a mason jar, cover tightly and let this mixture steep for 3 weeks.  Skip the secondary step from the directions above because alcohol will pull a lot of water from the fresh ingredients in this blend.  You don’t want to dilute it too much.

How to Use Your Bitters

There are an overwhelming number of articles flavoring cocktails with bitters, which neglects many other alternatives.  To begin with think of ways you can cook with your bitters concoctions.  Experiment with adding a few dashes  to salad dressings, relishes, marinades or soups.  Here are a few recipes to get you started.

Braised Greens
1 pound chopped greens of your choice
1 tbsp. olive oil
1 clove garlic
1 small diced onion
1 tsp. real salt
1 tsp. ground pepper
1 tsp. bitters blend

Heat the oil in a large fry pan which has a lid and sauté the garlic and onions until tender. Add the greens and stir them around over the heat for a moment. Turn down the heat and cover the pan. Allow the greens to cook down, stirring occasionally. When they are tender sprinkle with the salt, pepper and bitters. Stir well and serve.

This is a nice way to make a quick fruit salad.

Fruit Salad Dressing

1/3 cup water
1/3 cup honey
1/3 cup packed mint leaves
Zest of one citrus fruit
1 tsp. bitters preparation
Put all of the ingredients except the bitters in a sauce pan and bring to a boil. Turn off the heat and allow this to steep overnight. Then strain. Toss with 9 cups of cubed fruit.

There are also ways to turn your  bitters preparations into  tasty beverages with negligible alcohol content.  You could add a half-teaspoon to a smoothie.  Or try the following recipes.

Lassi Digestif
1 1/4 cup frozen fruit
1 cup yogurt
2 tbsp. honey
1/2 teaspoon bitters blend

Mix these ingredients in a blender and enjoy in place of a dessert.

My take on the traditional bitters and soda water :

Bitters and Soda Water
½ tsp homemade bitters
8 ounce glass of sparkling water
1 tsp raw local honey or a few drops of stevia extract
Slice of orange

Add the bitters and orange slice to the sparkling water and stir.

This amount of bitters adds no more alcohol content than an equal amount of vanilla extract would add, so it is safe for children. An adult may adjust the dose to a teaspoon in the case of indigestion. You can also add a few drops to a cup of chamomile tea which has been used traditionally to enhance digestion.

My own personal favorite, which avoids alcohol entirely, is to make a seasoning mixture by grinding dry versions of  bitter herbs and sprinkling this blend on my food in place of salt and pepper.

*Note: make sure the Sumac you use has red berries. Poison Sumac has white berries and should not be touched, harvested or eaten since it is very toxic.