Four Great Christmas Destinations for the Holiday Season

My friend Mindy Bianca of Mindy Bianca Public Relations (MBPR) introduced me to hr newest employee, Jolly Jinglebutton (I don’t know where Mindy meets these characters), an elf who seems in the know for all things Christmas. And here, in his words, are some great holiday destinations.

Photo courtesy of Branson Convention & Visitor’s Bureau

Branson, Missouri

            In this Ozark Mountain town, moms and dads put the kids to bed on Halloween night, sneak some candy to get a little sugar rush, and then scurry around to transform Branson from fall to festive in a matter of hours. Poof! By the morning of November 1, Branson looks like the North Pole … minus the snow! Actually, this year they’re upping their game and transforming the historic downtown into a massive “winter wonderland” display – including hundreds of snowflakes suspended from the lampposts – so maybe it WILL look just like my home!

There are more than 1,500 beautifully decorated trees all around town, including a giant Community Tree whose themed décor changes each year. This year that tree is titled “We All SHINE ON!” and it will feature more than 200 super-sparkly LED stars in a variety of sizes, shapes and colors. The Community Tree display, which will stand nearly four stories tall, will be part of Branson’s holiday scene from November 1 through January 7. It’ll be positioned right next to the Branson Ferris Wheel, which itself is beautifully decorated with lights that “dance” to favorite Christmas tunes during multiple shows each night.

Photo courtesy of Branson Convention & Visitor’s Bureau

Though all the attractions around Branson get into the holiday spirit, the highest concentration of lights and décor can be found at Silver Dollar City, a legendary theme park that annually celebrates “An Old Time Christmas.” The park installs more than 6.5 million lights – that’s 680 miles of stringed bulbs! – as well as 1,000 decorated trees, 600 giant wreaths, 3 miles of garland, and 15,000 yards of ribbon. (Fun fact: That’s about 15,000 elves’ worth of ribbon, if we all laid head to toe.)

And perfect for a holiday visit: At the World’s Largest Toy Museum, you’ll find more than 1 million toys that represent pretty much everything that kids have been putting on their Christmas lists for the past 100 years. This museum sure makes me glad that Santa invested in all the new-fangled technology that relieves us elves from some of the most difficult toy-making tasks. (Don’t even talk about sewing on teddy bears’ noses. Ouch!)

Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee

            We elves took a recent poll, and our very favorite human – ever – is Dolly Parton. There really isn’t anything she can’t do. She writes and sings songs, she acts (check out her Christmas movie on NBC later this year!), she helps finance COVID vaccines, she promotes literacy, and she owns a theme park in the middle of the Smoky Mountains so that visitors far and wide can learn about and fall in love with her Tennessee Mountain Home.

In fact, Dolly is so amazing that I’m not saying she’s an elf, but I’m not NOT saying she is one, either. Think about it: Some of the best elves I know are named Polly (last name: Peppermintstripe), Molly (Mistletoe), Holly (Hugsomuch), Folly (Funsmith) and Golly (Gumdrop). And then, of course, there’s me … Jolly. Do you think it’s a coincidence that Dolly’s name just SOUNDS elf-y?

Anyway, back to that incredible theme park, Dollywood, which has a tendency – like me – to go a little Christmas-crazy. Starting on the first Saturday of November, the park is completely transformed into a winter wonderland, coming aglow as more than 5 million gleaming lights sparkle across the property. (They have a team of humans here called “Lighting Bugs” who start stringing in the summertime! They started early this year so Dolly could film her Christmas movie last month!) A highlight of the décor is a 50-foot-tall, animated Christmas tree that comes to life via a synchronized light show throughout the evening.

And this is a theme park, so there are plenty of rides to enjoy, too! You get to race through the night sky while millions of lights twinkle below. I can tell you from first-hand experience that it’s a lot like how Santa feels when he takes his sleigh ride on Christmas Eve.

Frostburg, Maryland

            Photographer: Hassan Rasheed

Take a look at this tiny town’s name. You just know people here are going to make a fuss about all wintery stuff, right? Fun fact: Frostburg is not named for Jack Frost – which is okay with me, because I’ve always thought that guy was kind of cold. Instead, it was named for a family that was among the first settlers here on what they call “The Mountain Side of Maryland,” way back when this area was pure wilderness.

But that bristly Jack Frost does show up once a year, on the first Saturday of December (this year that’s December 3), for the town’s “Storybook Holiday” celebration. Old Jack pushes his way right to the front of the parade and tries to make it all about him. So typical.

Photographer: Janelle Muletz

But you know who it’s really about? The students from Frostburg University, who work with members of the community to raise money for the university’s Children’s Literature Centre. They all come together to celebrate books, reading and literacy. Kids show up to hear Christmas stories, meet authors, write letters to Santa, watch the parade and sip “Cocoa with the Po-Po,” which is hosted by Frostburg’s police department.

But the very, very best part is – wait for it – when the college kids compete in the Elf Olympics. Events include all the things I’ve spent my life perfecting: cookie tossing, package wrapping, tree decorating, toy creating and even song serenading. It’s so much fun to watch! I asked Santa if I can recruit the best participants for our North Pole team, but he said they probably exceed our maximum height limit.

Something else I love about Frostburg is that it gives me plenty of chances to support small, local businesses, including an independent bookstore, a shop that sells vinyl records, an old-fashioned theater that shows classic Christmas movies, and a café that serves an eggnog latte that I wish Spazzy Sparkleshots, my favorite barista back in the North Pole, could learn how to make.

Bellingrath Gardens in Theodore, Alabama (near Mobile)

            I think a lot of people equate Christmas with colder weather and forget that there are plenty of warmer places that really get into the holiday spirit, too. MBPR represents several destinations that prove you don’t have to freeze your jingle bells off to enjoy the holidays. So, I want to tell you about Christmas at Bellingrath Gardens & Home, which is near Mobile, Alabama. The place is named for Walter Bellingrath, who made his fortune owning the region’s Coca-Cola bottling franchise, and O, Christmas tree … do they go all-out when it comes to decorating his 65-acre garden estate!

            During the Magic Christmas in Lights event, which this year runs November 25 through January 4, the gardens are adorned with more than 1,200 handmade set pieces, 3 million glittering lights and 16 custom scenes that can be enjoyed on your own or via a guided group walking tour. And guess what? Everything is designed, welded, painted and lamped on site by three members of the gardens’ staff.

In December, this area boasts an average daytime high of 63 degrees and a nighttime low of 45, so it’s possible to experience the lights in a comfortable climate but also enjoy a little bundling up … and perhaps a sip or bite of something warm along the way.

In addition to the light displays, the garden hosts live choral performances nearly every night. I love to sing-sing-sing, so I go every night to show my support … and tap my toes in my little curlicued shoes.

Also – news flash! – there ARE flowers that bloom at this time of year. Bellingrath is home to one of the South’s most amazing collections of Alabama’s state flower, the camellia. That was Mr. Bellingrath’s very favorite flower … and it happens to be Mrs. Claus’s fave, too! The team here always lets me pick a few camellias and send them home with Santa, who presents them to Mrs. Claus as part of the elves’ Christmas gift to her.

Midwest Made: Honeyed Raspberry and White Chocolate Cream Pie

After more than a decade of living in California, Shauna Sever resettled with her family in her home state of Illinois and rediscovered the storied, simple pleasures of home baking in her Midwestern kitchen, developing what she calls the 5 tenets of Midwest baking: Bake Big, Bake Easy, Bake with Purpose, Bake from the Past, and Bake in the Present. You may have seen Shauna discussing these tenets and sharing some of her favorite Midwest foods recently on CBS This Morning: Saturday.

As she’ll tell you: “From the Dakotas to Ohio, from Minnesota to Missouri, the Midwest is a veritable quilt of twelve states full of history, values, recipes, people, and places that make up the baking culture of the Heartland.” And with MIDWEST MADE, Sever offers bold recipes for treats we’ve come to know as all-American—from Bundt cakes to brownies—most traced to German, Scandinavian, Irish, Polish, French, Arab, and Italian immigrant families that came to call the American Midwest their home. Recipes include             Swedish Flop, Polish Paczki, Danish Kringle, German Lebkuchen, Candy Bar Baklava, Ozark Skillet Cake, Cleveland-Style Cassata Cake, Nebraskan Runzas, Apricot and Orange Blossom Kolacky, Dark-Chocolate Pecan Mandelbrot, Marshmallow Haystacks and so much more…

Here’s one that you’ll be sure to love.

Honeyed Raspberry and White Chocolate Cream Pie
Serves 8 to 10
From the outset, this pie appears to be one of those floaty, feminine food things, because it’s just so dang pretty. However! The fluff factor here—a cloud of white chocolate cream, bolstered by cream cheese—is quickly tempered by the thick raspberry layer beneath it, sharp and nubbly with all those nutty little berry seeds, which I happen to love. The mix of cooked and raw berries help to intensify the raspberry flavor, making you wonder: why there aren’t more raspberry pies out there, anyway?

Midwest Made by Shauna Sever.

CRUST:
2 ounces/57 g high-quality white chocolate, chopped
1 tablespoon heavy whipping cream
1 single batch My Favorite Pie Crust (see recipe at bottom), blind baked and cooled
FILLING:
2/3 cup/132 g granulated sugar
1/4 cup/32 g cornstarch
1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
1 cup/225 g lukewarm water
3 tablespoons/63 g honey
1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
4 cups/500 g fresh raspberries, divided
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
TOPPING:
1 cup/240 g heavy whipping cream, very cold
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon pure almond extract
4 ounces/113 g full-fat cream cheese
4 ounces/113 g high-quality white chocolate, melted and cooled

Prepare the crust: Combine the white chocolate and cream in a small, microwave-safe bowl. Microwave with 20-second bursts on medium, stirring until smooth. Spread evenly over the bottom of the cooled crust. Allow to set at room temperature.

In a 3- to 4-quart/2.8 to 3.75 L saucepan, whisk together the sugar, cornstarch, and salt until lumpfree.
Whisk in the lukewarm water, honey, and lemon juice. Add 2 cups/250 g of the raspberries. Cover and set the pan over high heat. Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally. Once the berries begin to break down and the mixture is slowly bubbling all over the surface like lava, cook for 2 timed minutes, stirring often. Stir in the butter. Remove the pan from the heat and let cool completely, about 1 hour.

Prepare the topping: In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, whip the cream with the vanilla and almond extract until stiff peaks form. Transfer the whipped cream to a clean bowl. Swap out the whisk attachment for the paddle. Add the cream cheese and melted white chocolate to the mixer bowl (no need to clean it). Beat on medium speed until smooth and creamy. Gently stir about a third of the whipped cream into the cream cheese mixture to lighten it, then carefully fold in the remaining whipped cream.

Assemble the pie: Scatter 1 cup of the remaining berries over the bottom of the crust. Spoon the raspberry filling over them, then add the remaining berries on top. Pipe or dollop the white chocolate cream topping over the pie, leaving a 1-inch/2.5 cm border of the ruby red filling all around the edges. Refrigerate for at least 3 hours to set. Let soften at room temperature for about 20 minutes before serving.

My Favorite Pie Crust
Pie crust purists will likely object, but I’m a big believer in using a food processor for pie crust making. If you don’t overdo it, it just doesn’t get any easier or faster.

We’ve all heard a thousand times that keeping the fat as cold as possible is the key to great pie crusts, and that’s certainly a great tip. But I add a few pinches and splashes that I consider insurance, for when the kitchen is hot or I’m distracted by any number of children or things.
Vinegar is great for tenderness: I like red wine vinegar, but cider vinegar is good, too. A little pinch of baking powder makes a flakier crust a little more foolproof in case you happen to overwork the dough (happens to the best of us). For a crust with a savory filling, I include the smaller amounts of sugar as listed here for flavor and browning. For sweet pies, use 1 or 2 tablespoons, as you like.

SINGLE
MAKES: 1 (9- or 10-inch/23 or 25 cm) round bottom pie or tart crust
11/3 cups/170 g unbleached all-purpose flour, spooned and leveled
1 teaspoon to 1 tablespoon granulated sugar (see headnote)
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
1/8 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 cup/113 g very cold unsalted butter, cubed
1/4 cup/57 g ice water
11/2 teaspoons red wine vinegar
SPECIAL NOTES > Pat the finished dough into a round disk before wrapping and chilling to make rolling it into a circle later much easier.

DOUBLE

MAKES: 1 (9- or 10-inch/23 or 25 cm) round double-crusted or lattice-topped pie
22/3 cups/340 g unbleached all-purpose flour, spooned and leveled
2 teaspoons to 2 tablespoons granulated sugar (see headnote)
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1 cup/225 g very cold unsalted butter, cubed
1/2 cup/113 g ice water
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
SPECIAL NOTES > Divide the dough in half before shaping and wrapping. For a lattice top, make one disk slightly larger for the bottom crust.

SLAB
MAKES: 1 (10 x 15-inch/30 x 43 cm) slab pie
51/3 cups/680 g unbleached all-purpose flour, spooned and leveled
4 teaspoons to 4 tablespoons granulated sugar (see headnote)
2 teaspoons fine sea salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
2 cups/453 g very cold unsalted butter, cubed
1 cup/225 g ice water
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

SPECIAL NOTES: Make the dough in 2 batches (2 recipes of the doubled recipe, left), for the top and bottom crusts. Shape and wrap each batch separately.

METHOD: In the bowl of a food processor, combine the flour, sugar, salt, and baking powder. Pulse a few times to blend. Sprinkle half of the butter pieces over the dry ingredients. Process until the mixture resembles cornmeal, about 15 seconds. Add the remaining cold butter and pulse about 10 times, until this batch of butter cubes is broken down by about half.

In a measuring cup, combine the water and vinegar. Add about three quarters of the liquid to the bowl. Pulse about 10 times, or until the dough begins to form a few small clumps. Test the dough by squeezing a small amount in the palm of your hand. If it easily holds together and your palm isn’t dusty with floury bits, it’s done. If not, add an additional 1/2 tablespoon of vinegared water and pulse 2 or 3 more times. Repeat this process as needed just until the dough holds together. Turn out the mixture onto a work surface. With a few quick kneads, gather the dough into a mass.

For a single crust, pat the dough into a disk, wrapping tightly in plastic wrap. For double crust, divide the dough in half and shape into disks. For 2 slab crusts, shape each half of the dough into a 5 x 8-inch/12.5 x 20 cm rectangle. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours before rolling.
TIP > The dough will keep tightly wrapped in the fridge for up to a week, and in the freezer for up to 6 months.

Reprinted with permission from MIDWEST MADE © 2019 by Shauna Sever, Running Press.