In the busy holiday season, there are few things more appreciated than a homemade gift, especially a homemade gift you can eat or drink.
If it seems like too much work at this time of year to create and cook gifts for family and friends, consider that within the same budget - of time and money - you might otherwise spend, you can make many times the number of homemade gifts and can generously expand the list of those to whom you give.
Not only is it practical in these recessionary times, but also you might find you enjoy waiting for the nuts to toast or the chocolate to melt more than waiting for a parking spot at the mall.
Hosts and hostesses will welcome a batch of sweet and spiced nuts to put out with drinks, as well as candied fruit to add to the dessert offerings. Cooks and noncooks alike appreciate a pretty and practical jar filled with herb vinegar or pears and vanilla steeped in sweet brandied syrup. A tin of house-blend cocoa mix would be perfect for a neighbor with a passel of kids soon to be home for holiday break.
The simple step of developing a small repertoire of specialties to create in your own kitchen can transform your gift-giving experience. Homemade gifts need not be elaborate or time-consuming to prepare. In fact many of the best homemade gifts are more a matter of planning and packaging than actually preparing.
Look for interesting jars, tins, small crates, baskets, and bottles throughout the year. Stockpiling containers to repurpose is not just economical, it is environmentally prudent - as reusing is even more important than recycling.
Wooden clementine crates look great lined with tissue paper and holding biscotti or peanut brittle. Empty cookie tins relabeled and wrapped are perfect to store and display home-crafted treats. Well-washed jam jars and tea canisters, as well as freshly purchased tins and canning jars of various sizes, can hold nuts, cocoa, herbed salts, or spice mixes. Most cookware and hardware stores also stock a variety of jars, canisters, and tins. (Dollar stores are also a good bet.)
With paper and pen, glue stick and scissors, you can easily personalize your creations. Cloth scraps or decorative paper are easy ways to dress up a jar lid, while tissue paper, wax paper, and parchment are helpful for lining tins and boxes for cookies and candies. Store-bought labels and a computer can also help in creating gifts that look as good as they taste.
One of the easiest homemade gifts to make (and use) is herb or fruit vinegar. A sprig of fresh tarragon or thyme placed in a pretty jar filled with white wine or champagne vinegar is lovely to look at, and delicious to use. The vinegar needs a week or so to take on the herb flavor, and will remain fresh and stable at room temperature. Add a small tag with your favorite vinaigrette recipe and your gift is complete. You can make a dozen bottles in less than 10 minutes. Finely minced cranberries or mashed raspberries can be steeped for several days in a large jar of vinegar, which is then strained into decorative jars for an exceptional rose-tinted vinegar with a hint of fruit - perfect for winter salads and marinades.
Other exceptionally easy-to-make-and-pack food gifts are "house-blend recipes." One friend, known for her breakfasts, gives her "secret" pancake blend (a mix of several flours, powdered milk, baking powder, and salt) in a lidded glass canister, along with instructions. Your own house-blend hot cocoa would require only measuring and mixing quality cocoa and sugar. For friends who like to try cooking exotic new things, consider packing a unique five-spice rub - your own blend of Asian, Turkish, or Mediterranean spices - or cider mulling mix in small jars or tins.
Even easier than house-blend recipes are repackaged "house favorites." Those of you lucky enough to visit maple syrup country in summer or fall might consider buying a quantity of luscious, flavorful Grade B Amber syrup, and pouring it into decorative jars with your own festive label affixed. The same can be done with varietal or local honey from a Philadelphia beekeeper, or from one in an area with special meaning to you. A jar of honey packed with fresh white edible honeycomb is an especially unusual and useful treat. These are easy but special ways to wish someone a sweet new year.
A weekend is a great time to try out old-fashioned candy recipes. Chocolate bark and nut clusters, various flavors of fudge, peanut and other nut brittles, and toffees are all quite easy to make in gift-size batches. If you purchase quality cream, chocolate, and nuts the candies you produce will have a provenance and flavor far superior to most commercial versions of these familiar items. One of the easiest and best-received homemade treats I make is chocolate peppermint bark. The recipe has three ingredients - dark chocolate, white chocolate, and peppermint sticks - and a large batch can be completed and boxed up in less than an hour.
If you are inclined to bake, cookies, cookie bars, and miniature cakes are all great gifts. I tend to choose quality over quantity. Some years I bake only one fabulous but labor-intensive cookie, such as rolled linzer stars or hearts. Other years I make an assortment of elegant thin biscotti, which can be made to look as good as store-bought with a minimum of baking experience. They also store (and travel) extremely well. You might consider planning a small cookie cooperative with family or neighbors. If each member of the group bakes and provides several dozen of one holiday baked good to each other individual member, everyone involved can make up gift assortments without having to produce such a wide array of goodies.
In the end, your efforts will mean far fewer swipes of your credit card this season. Perhaps more important, making your own gifts may turn out to be a lovely gift you give yourself.
Chocolate Peppermint Bark
Makes about 2 pounds (or about 12 servings)EndTextStartText
1 1/4 pounds good-quality dark or semisweet (60-70%) chocolate, chopped
3/4 pound white chocolate, chopped (chips or discs can be left whole)
5 peppermint sticks or good-quality candy canesEndTextStartText
1. Line a large cookie sheet or jelly-roll pan with parchment. Place peppermint sticks in a sturdy plastic bag and gently crush with the bottom of a small, heavy saucepan or rolling pin. You should end up with a mixture of small pieces and a bit of peppermint candy dust. Reserve.
2. Place dark chocolate in a heatproof bowl over a pan of simmering water and heat until just melted. Remove from heat and stir until chocolate is completely melted. Spread chocolate in an even layer in prepared pan. Place pan in the refrigerator until chocolate becomes firm.
3. Meanwhile, melt white chocolate, as above, over simmering water.
4. When the dark chocolate is quite set, pour the melted white chocolate over the top and spread evenly to create a layer of white chocolate over the dark. Sprinkle the crushed peppermint evenly over the white chocolate while the white chocolate is still soft. Press the larger pieces gently into the white chocolate layer. Return pan to the refrigerator until the white chocolate is also firm.
5. Bark can be either broken into irregular pieces, or turned out onto a clean cutting board and cut into small squares, triangles, or rectangles. Bark should be stored at room temperature, well covered.
Per serving: 453 calories, 4 grams protein, 54 grams carbohydrates, 46 grams sugar, 28 grams fat, 5 milligrams cholesterol, 31 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.EndText
Red Berry Vinegar
Makes about 2 quarts
1/2 pound fresh red cranberries, or 1 pint fresh raspberries
2 quarts white-wine or champagne vinegar
1. Place the berries in the bowl of a food processor with the knife attachment and pulse until the berries are well chopped. Add about 1/2 cup of the vinegar and pulse a few more times until the berries and vinegar are well mixed.
2. Pour this mixture along with the remaining vinegar into a large glass jar or nonreactive bowl at room temperature. Cover and let sit in a dark spot for at least 24 hours or up to 1 week.
3. Strain by pouring through a fine-mesh sieve, or colander lined with cheesecloth, into a nonreactive bowl or jar. Pour carefully into decorative bottles, using a funnel if needed.
Sweet & Spiced Pecans
Makes 1 pound (or about 12 servings)EndTextStartText
1 egg white
1 pound shelled pecan halves
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4-1/2 teaspoon ground Aleppo or ground dried chipotle pepper (I like them spicy)
1/4 teaspoon cardamom
1/4 teaspoon ground white or black pepper
1/2-1 teaspoon sea salt (I like them salty)
1/2 cup light brown sugarEndTextStartText
1. Preheat oven to 225 degrees. Prepare a half sheet pan with sides by lining with a silicone mat or parchment.
2. Beat the egg white in a large bowl until quite frothy. Toss the pecans with the egg white until well coated. Add the remaining ingredients to the pecans and stir to cover evenly.
3. Spread in prepared pan and bake, stirring the nuts every 10 to 15 minutes to prevent them from sticking, for about 1 hour. These nuts should be cooled well before packing, and should be stored airtight.
Per serving: 289 calories, 4 grams protein, 12 grams carbohydrates, 7 grams sugar, 27 grams fat, no cholesterol, 104 milligrams sodium, 4 grams dietary fiber.EndText
Linzer Hearts or Stars
Makes 12 to 15 cookies, or more depending on size
1 cup almond flour or finely ground almonds
22/3 cups unbleached white flour
1/3 cup cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 pound unsalted butter
2/3 cup granulated sugar
1 cup seedless raspberry jam
Confectioners' sugar for dusting
1. Mix dry ingredients together.
2. In a large bowl, or in the bowl of a stand mixer, beat the butter and the granulated sugar until well creamed. Add the dry ingredients slowly and mix on low until the dry ingredients are well incorporated.
3. Scrape from bowl into two portions onto two sheets of waxed paper. Press into an approximately 6-inch square, fold waxed paper around until dough is well covered, and refrigerate for at least one hour or up to two days.
4. When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Prepare baking sheets by covering with a sheet of parchment or a nonstick mat. Roll the chilled dough on a well-floured surface to a thickness of about 1/4 inch. Using a large cookie cutter, cut as many cookies as you can. Carefully place the cookies on prepared pan. Once on the pan, cut out a center "window" in half of the cookies with a smaller cutter. Bake until they are barely lightly browned. They will no longer seem "shiny" on top when they are done. Turn the pans from front to back midway through baking and switch oven shelves if baking more than one pan at a time. Baking time depends on the size and thickness of the dough, so check carefully. Remove cookies to cooling rack when done.
5. You can either bake the center cutout shapes as small cookies, or mix these back with the scraps to reroll. Gather up and rechill the extra dough. Repeat with the other half of the dough, rolling and cutting an even number of tops with remaining dough and scraps.
6. When all cookies are baked and cooled, you are ready to fill. Spread a generous amount of raspberry jam on each of the bottom cookies (the exact amount will again depend on the size of your cookie). Dust all the top cookies with confectioners sugar sprinkled through a fine sieve and then place atop the jam to create a cookie sandwich.
Note: You will need two cutters, one for the base cookie, and one for cutting the "window" in the top cookie. Cookies can be stored in a tin or container with a tight-fitting lid, between layers of waxed paper, for several weeks.
Per cookie (based on 15): 239 calories, 5 grams protein, 32 grams carbohydrates, 9 grams sugar, 10 grams fat, 9 milligrams cholesterol, 1 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.EndText
Ginger Biscotti With Pistachios and Apricot
Makes approximately 60 biscotti
3 1/4 cups unbleached white flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
Pinch of salt
1 1/2 teaspoons fresh-ground white pepper
1 teaspoon ground ginger
3/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 cup (loosely packed) chopped soft crystallized ginger
6 soft dried apricots cut in small pieces
1 cup shelled pistachios, lightly toasted if not preroasted
3 large eggs
1/3 cup honey
1. Mix the flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, and spices along with the sugar till just mixed. Add the chopped ginger, apricots, and pistachios.
2. In a small bowl mix the eggs with the honey until blended. Add this mixture to the dry ingredients until combined.
3. Place two 20-inch lengths of wax paper or plastic wrap on a counter. Spread half the dough in a strip along the center of each piece of wrap. Shape each strip of dough into a log approximately 13 inches long, one on each sheet of plastic wrap or waxed paper, then use the damp heel of your hand, or a rubber spatula, to smooth and press the dough into two neat rectangles, 3 inches wide by 13 inches long. Wrap each rectangle up in the extra plastic wrap or paper, and place side by side on a cookie sheet. Place the cookie sheet in the freezer for at least an hour and up to 2 months.
4. When you are ready to bake, line two baking sheets with parchment or a nonstick mat. Preheat the oven to 300. Transfer each block of dough carefully to a lined cookie sheet and bake for 45 minutes, turning your pans and switching oven shelves once during baking to ensure even cooking. Dough will be quite brown. Remove pans from the oven, turn the oven down to 275 degrees, and transfer one log of cooked dough from the oven to a cutting board.
5. Using a clean dish towel to protect your hands from the heat, cut the log on a diagonal into 1/4-inch slices. The sharper the angle of the diagonal the longer the cookies. Aim for a length you can cut comfortably in even, perfect slices. Place the slices touching each other back on the cookie sheet, and bake approximately 25 minutes until just dry. Do not brown. Remove from heat and cool. If the cookies are not crisp and dry once cool, recook for 4 to 7 minutes at 275.
Note: Once cool these biscotti store in an airtight container for three weeks.
Per biscotti: 90 calories, 3 grams protein, 13 grams carbohydrates, 6 grams sugar, 4 grams fat, 11 milligrams cholesterol, 70 milligrams sodium, 1 grams dietary fiber.EndText