It's hard to deny the appeal of a homemade gift: a thoughtful gesture that takes time to create, with an added personal touch. But when it comes to edible items, not all homemade food gifts are created equal.
Take the ubiquitous fruitcake, that citron-laden doorstop that throughout the year most cooks wouldn't dream of making for themselves (never mind eating,) but somehow feel compelled to produce and distribute en mass to all those teachers, delivery people, and book club members who must be recognized during the holidays.
Or what about the ingredients-in-a-jar craze that was popular a few years ago but that, happily, is on the wane? Those never made sense to me. Not only did it mean you had to do half the work, but also no cookie or scone recipes require dumping all the ingredients into the bowl at once, as the prettily layered jar presentation demands. These mason jar gifts usually sat in my pantry until the layers started to get moldy.
So in thinking about what homemade food gifts I would mass-produce for holiday giving this year, I tried to focus either on items I've made that my friends and family eagerly accept each year, or on the cherished products I've received and look forward to resampling when holiday season rolls around again. All are inexpensive and relatively easy to make, though some require a bit of patience. The grapefruit marmalade seems to take forever to reach the jelly stage; the granola requires some attentive babysitting; and the limoncello, though it's the easiest of all the recipes, has to be set aside for two rather lengthy intervals.
My grapefruit marmalade is one food gift I've been making for years, often not until well into December, after all my holiday shopping is done and my houseful of Christmas guests are about to arrive. Getting it done earlier this year was a great relief. And because I made a larger batch than usual, I'll be able to share this tangy condiment filled with an abundance of slivered peels, which I fondly refer to as the "marmals," with a wider circle of friends.
The limoncello was a gift I received from my friend Deborah Paredes in 2014 and 2015, and I was sorely disappointed when she failed to reproduce it last Christmas. I grew wary again this year as November rolled around and there was no word about her getting her limoncello starter going. Deborah is a purist and follows some limoncello makers' recommendations to let the lemon peels macerate in vodka for a month before adding the simple syrup, then letting that mixture rest for two more weeks. I shortened the process to 10 days of macerating for step one, and another week for step two, which still produced tartly flavored liqueur, even if the color was a bit wan (easily remedied by adding a couple of drops of yellow food coloring.)
The maple syrup-infused granola is one I've enjoyed by proxy. My sister Lisa Pollack works at the Brearley School in Manhattan, and, like most faculty members, she finds her desk laden with small gifts from students at the end of December, several of which I get to sample. One of the most anticipated in the last few years has been the mason jar filled with "Colette & Romy's Crunchy Granola," a nutty concoction made by two upper-school sisters, Colette and Romy Macari, both of whom, alas, have now graduated. Luckily, the girls' mother, Kim Staller, was kind enough to share the recipe with me.
When my daughters were in elementary school and I had a number of teachers whose good efforts deserved recognition, mini pound cakes proved an easy and popular solution. The orange and poppy seed cakes I made this year are a dense, flavorful variation of the lemon pound cakes I made in the past, and are bound to be more welcome than any fruitcake. With my daughters now grown, I imagine these pretty glazed cakes will make for great hostess gifts, especially after being properly trussed in colorful cellophane and bows.
Almost as important as the edible aspect of these food gifts is the presentation, which adds an extra layer of creativity and your own personal imprint. Mason jars come with holiday themed lids and are great for the marmalade, though I prefer the old-fashioned crank lid variety. For the granola, any decorative airtight glass or plastic container will do. You can then add sparkly gift ribbon to the lids, or wrap the red-and-white string that bakeries use to tie up boxes around the jars' neck several times, possibly lacing in a sprig of rosemary, a pine cone, or a jingle bell. For the limoncello and cakes, I scoured my favorite thrift stores and found some beautiful bottles, glass stoppers, and holiday cake pans, which also become part of the gift. These receptacles can also be found at most home goods stores.
And don't forget the labeling. Here's where you get to be artistic and share a greeting of love or appreciation. For the limoncello, I cut out lemon-shaped gift tags; my marmalade gets stick-on labels I embellish with a holly festooned border. Be sure to include the date, in case someone chooses not to dig into your gift immediately.