Houston Interior Designers Pamela O’Brien and Danna Smith Share Holiday Traditions
Pamela’s Holiday: European Travel, Christmas Markets, and Raclette
By: Pamela O’Brien
This Christmas, I am getting my wish early. Every year, our Houston interior design team at Pamela Hope Designs makes a holiday wishlist. It’s fun to see what everyone wants. We usually concentrate on home decor, but this year’s wish was a little different for me.
I had two bucket list items on my travel dreams. One was a river cruise in Eastern Europe, and the other was to visit the Christmas markets. I ended up booking a river cruise, but the group I was going with canceled. It would have happened before the Christmas markets opened anyway, so I wasn’t that upset. I started brainstorming and contacted my good friend Päivi, whom I met when she was an exchange student at Kingwood High School. She is from Finland but has lived in Switzerland for most of her adult life. Päivi said there are lots of Christmas markets near her and I should plan a visit.
Well, at that point, I was off and running. I booked my flight and started researching the markets. But I had a few things come up that could not be changed. When I considered postponing my flights for just a few days, the fee was thousands of dollars. I started to think the markets would not welcome me this year. However, by postponing my flights by two weeks, I got a travel credit and even better accommodations! I was off and running once again.
I flew to Basel, Switzerland, a charming small city that sits between France and Germany. You fly into France and can choose whether to exit to France or Switzerland. On my first day, we rode bikes to France from Päivi’s house. It took less than 6 minutes on a borrowed bike. She likes to buy certain grocery items in France, so we popped into a local shop while we were there. I was impressed with the amount of Christmas items, especially chocolates, which were all over the store. I especially chuckled at the Nutella, decked out in special holiday packaging that looked like Christmas sweaters! I discovered Nutella many years ago when I was an exchange student in Italy, so I have a special appreciation for it. Needless to say, after the first bite, I fell in love.
My friend, Päivi, really knows me even after all these years because she had some great ideas to start my holiday. On the first day, we visited a historic villa with charming rooms decorated with period antiques. I was especially impressed by the stoves used to heat the rooms. They were so large and nicely decorated with painted tiles or glazes. When I participated in the BSH Experience, to learn more about their products, I discovered that the appliance giant’s start was making heating stoves in Europe.
Each room had a Christmas tree with simple but lovely ornaments, and EVERY SINGLE CHRISTMAS TREE WE SAW IN SWITZERLAND WAS LIVE. Some are huge, some are small, but I never saw an artificial tree, not even in the streets or tunnels. And they had a lot of Christmas trees! It was magical!
On day two, we visited the fabulous Cassiopeia Thermal Spa in the beautiful spa village of Badenweiler, Germany. It has been a spa town since 50 BC when the Romans built baths on top of the original Celtic bath sites, which are even more ancient. The spa was a delight, with many pools and various swimming and bathing options. We took two aqua gymnastic classes, which provided a lot of resistance and good muscle work. Being a German spa, there were lots of interesting pools that provided jetted water and natural hot springs. Everything was very organized and regulated. You would enter a changing room and have to turn a knob to exit out the opposite door without shoes. Labels tell you precisely what to do. The only challenge might be that it was only in German or French, so if you don’t speak either of those languages, you might have to ask for help. Don’t fret. Nearly everyone in Germany and this part of Switzerland speaks excellent English. We finished our spa day with the on-trend wine treatment of a grape seed scrub in a heated vapor room. The most interesting part of that treatment is that it was “textile-free,” which means no bathing suits. To our surprise, it was co-ed, too. A young French guy sat across from me, and neither of us was wearing anything more than grape seed and mud smears!
That evening, we went to an art gallery opening for a friend of Päivi’s, Natalie Corman. I had a lot of fun chatting with people about the exhibit and the number of galleries I work with at home. Natalie is currently concentrating on insects as her subject matter. There was also a talented wood artist, a printer, and a woman who painted big, colorful floral arrangements in a classic Dutch master’s style. However, her coloration and style felt fresh and modern. I enjoyed looking at them.
We had a tasty gluhwein and took a quick look at the Christmas market before we were on our way to a concert for more gluhwein and some raclette! If you are unfamiliar with Switzerland, you may not understand how serious they are about cheese. They have special machinery and a whole industry on how to melt it, including huge furnaces that melt the raclette cheese to eat with potatoes, sausage, pickles, and bread. It is simple but delicious and perfect for the cold Swiss winters.
At the time of this writing, I’m only halfway through my trip, but I can tell you that Santa definitely delivered this year! Tomorrow, we head to more Christmas markets in Colmar, France, and then I will spend a few days in Strasbourg before returning to Basel.
Holidays, special traditions, treasured friendships, and travel always inspire me. Until next time, find your own inspiration or contact us, and we’ll help you discover it.
Danna’s Holiday: Tree Trimming, Baking, and a Good Ol’ Texas BBQ
By: Danna Smith
The holiday season is upon us once again here at Pamela Hope Designs. I am sure everyone is in a tizzy trying to get some last-minute shopping done. I always say I will be prepared, but every year, there seems to be a commotion between holiday prep at my house and wrapping up client projects. But it’s all good fun and manages to come together in the end!
This year is a special year for the Smith family. My daughter Taylor will graduate from the University of North Texas with a master’s in Library Science – Archival Studies. I am so proud of her and all she has accomplished, along with my daughter Mia, a character artist for a gaming company. Her company has put one of her characters in a game she works on and made it into a plush toy. When I say “her character,” I am referencing one of the many she has created for herself personally and has developed over the years. She has received numerous accolades from her community, and it makes me so happy that she is doing something she loves. Isn’t that what it is all about?! Getting to go to work every day, and it not feeling like work!
Our Christmas tree was brought out just after Thanksgiving, and my girls had a good time with the decorations. I still have several ornaments they made when they were in grade school. I love them! We decorated the house and are ready for Santa to visit! I always put out a plate of cookies on Christmas Eve, even though my girls are 24. Somehow, they always manage to get eaten by Christmas morning. The cookies are a great treat for Santa, but I also like to make sweets for our family get-togethers.
After graduation, we are going to spend time with family and friends. I have relatives coming in from Arizona, so it will be a fun-filled celebration with all of my cousins. We are having a barbeque-themed Christmas, and I have decided to bring a couple of desserts. It wouldn’t be a real Texas barbeque without a Texas Sheet Cake! I found a version with a holiday twist, complete with a festive peppermint frosting. I wanted to share this new tradition with you all in case you’d like to try it, too.
Now I must confess…I have made Texas Sheet Cake before, but this recipe caught my eye a few years ago. I saw The Today Show had done it recently, so I snagged it for you! The link is here below.
For the Chocolate Sheet Cake:
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 cup light brown sugar
- 1/4 cup buttermilk
- 1 large egg
- 1 large egg yolk
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1/2 teaspoon peppermint extract
- 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
- 1/2 cup water
- 1/4 cup Dutch-process cocoa powder
- 1 1/2 teaspoons espresso powder
For the Peppermint Frosting:
- 3 tablespoons whole milk
- 6 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 3 tablespoons Dutch-process cocoa powder
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 1/2 cups of confectioners’ sugar, sifted
- 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1/2 teaspoon peppermint extract
- crushed candy canes for decorating
- Preheat the oven to 350 F. Grease a 9-by-13-inch pan with cooking spray and line with parchment paper.
- Whisk together the flour, baking soda, salt, and brown sugar in a medium bowl.
- Whisk together the buttermilk, whole egg, egg yolk, vanilla, and peppermint extract in a small bowl.
- In a small saucepan set over medium-high heat, add the butter, water, cocoa, and espresso powders and cook for 3-4 minutes, stirring occasionally, until boiling. Continue to boil for about 30 seconds, then carefully pour the hot mixture over the dry ingredients, whisking to combine. Gently whisk in the buttermilk mixture until smooth.
- Scrape the batter into the prepared pan, using a spatula to smooth it into an even layer. Bake for about 15 minutes, until a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean, rotating the pan halfway through.
- While the cake bakes, make the frosting: in a small saucepan set over medium-high heat, add the milk, butter, cocoa powder, and salt, stirring occasionally until the mixture comes to a boil. Add the confectioners’ sugar and whisk to combine. Add the vanilla and peppermint extract and whisk to combine.
- Remove the cake from the oven and place on a wire rack to cool. Pour the warm frosting over the hot cake and spread it with an offset spatula. Sprinkle the chopped candy over the frosting and allow the cake to come to room temperature before slicing and serving.
This holiday season, make sure you spend some quality time with family and friends, but don’t forget about quality time for yourself. We all need to relax and take in the wonderful blessings we have been given. A little “me” time is needed and well-deserved as well.
Happy Holidays Everyone! See you in 2024!