Picture the scene:
December 20-something in the afternoon, your doorbell rings. You rush to the door expecting a uniformed delivery person, bringing that last, most important gift you ordered for your spouse. But no! Outside is your neighbor, clutching another beautiful bounty of her homemade specialty, and you, again, are unprepared…
This year, vow to be prepared with a beautiful homemade gift of your own. It’s easier than you think!
Gifts from your kitchen—now, and any time of the year, really—demonstrate your thoughtfulness and planning, are generally affordable, and are usually very welcome. If you’ve ever been a teacher, you know the coffee mugs tend to stack up. I love getting little bags of goodies from friends; I can save them for myself, or share when other guests drop by. Reflecting on gifts I’ve loved over the years, the ones that come to mind fall into at least one of three categories: personal, immediately usable or beautifully packaged.
The fun part of a homemade gift from the kitchen is that you’re sharing part of your family—an old family recipe or personal favorite. It’s fun, too, to see what others eat and choose to share during the holidays, and to get a glimpse of another family’s traditions. Are you known for your spaghetti sauce or barbecue rub? Does your family have a signature cookie or holiday treat that everyone loves? Give the people what they want: if everyone looks at you and thinks of your delicious ginger snaps or fabulous brownies, that’s what you should make. If you’ve made almond toffee for the past 10 years (and gotten compliments on it!), by all means, stick to what you are good at, and what you’re known for.
During the holidays, we all feel pressed for time, and nothing is better than an extra hand to help. A homemade coffee cake or a couple dozen frozen hors d’oeuvres would really fit the bill for someone who has a house full of guests. A container of soup or a pan of chicken enchiladas or lasagna would be the perfect gift for a busy family. Such dishes could be used right away, or frozen for the coming weeks.
Half the fun of making and receiving the gift is the packing. There are endless possibilities both at local craft stores and online. Consider the item you intend to package. Is it fragile? Would it be best stored in the fridge or freezer; would it go stale sitting on the counter? Will you be mailing the item, or hand delivering? Each of these questions dictates a different kind of basic packaging.
Take a trip to the craft store and hardware store to look at your packaging options. The best packages are gifts in themselves—a sturdy box or bowl that can be reused is a great container.
There are endless ways to jazz up your packaging as well. Picture a plain cellophane bag or an aluminum pan wrapped with personalized ribbon (imprinted with holiday greetings and your name) to dress it up. Or consider creating custom labels; you can easily design your own using sticky labels available at the office supply store—which could include cooking instructions or recipe suggestions.
Ready to start cooking? Don’t forget to be realistic. Figure out how many gifts you’ll need, then add two or three extra gifts for good luck—there’s always someone unexpected who shows up with a package—and you could take extra gifts to any holiday parties to which you may be invited. Figure out the cost of the recipe, and whether it will be affordable; sometimes holiday ingredients like nuts can be expensive. Next, make one batch of your gift—to make sure it’s good, and to see how long it will take. Test the packaging, and make any necessary adjustments. Keep the recipe and a list of recipients in your holiday file so that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel next year. It may also be a good idea to keep a list of gifts you received from friends to help remind you who you need to add to your list next year. I’ve included some recipes that I’ve enjoyed that make nice gifts, if you don’t already have one in mind. Happy Holidays and Happy Cooking!
Grainy Mustard (makes 2 cups)
This would look great in a jar with a nice label. Everyone knows what to do with mustard, but you could add a recipe for a salad dressing made with the mustard for a nice addition to your gift.
¼ cup mustard seeds
1 cup Coleman’s mustard powder
4 tablespoons honey
¼ cup champagne vinegar
1 cup white wine
Place the mustard seeds in a heavy zip-lock plastic bag and pound them 4 to 5 times with the bottom of a skillet to smash some of the seeds. In a medium bowl, combine the seeds, mustard powder, honey and vinegar. Stir until combined. Add the wine and stir. Put into a non-reactive jar (glass) and refrigerate for at least 24 hours before using. Mustard keeps, refrigerated, for one year—if it lasts that long!
Mushroom Puffs (makes 36)
These yummy hors d’oeuvres can be kept in the freezer up to three months. Just pop a few on a baking tray and reheat for a last-minute treat. Alternately, just make the filling and serve with toasted French bread rounds.
1 clove garlic, minced
2 tablespoons butter
1 pound mushrooms, chopped
1 8-ounce package cream cheese
1 package frozen puff pastry
Sauté garlic in butter. Add mushrooms and cook over medium-high heat, until all the liquid has been absorbed. Cool slightly. Combine cream cheese and mushrooms in a food processor or mixer and blend completely.
(At this point, you could refrigerate the mixture and serve with toasted French bread rounds.) To continue with making the appetizer, cut a sheet of puff pastry into 1½-inch squares. Press a square into each cavity of a mini muffin tin. Fill with a rounded teaspoon of the mushroom mixture. Bake at 400 degrees for 10 minutes until lightly browned. Serve, or cool then remove from pan and freeze for up to three months.
Butter (for greasing baking sheet)
1 cup sugar
1 tablespoon Chinese five-spice powder
½ teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons water
2 cups pecan halves
Butter a foil-lined baking sheet. Preheat the oven to 350. In a heavy saucepan, bring the sugar, spices and water to a boil, stirring constantly until the mixture reaches 240 degrees (soft-ball stage) on a candy thermometer. Remove from heat and stir in the pecans.
Pour the nut mixture onto the greased foil and bake in the oven for 10 minutes, until toasted and fragrant. Let cool, then break up into small pieces. Store in an airtight container for two weeks, or in your freezer for up to six months.
I learned early that the attraction to truffles is the taste and quality of the chocolate, so don’t skimp on this ingredient. Instead of the lengthy process of scooping and rolling the truffles into balls, try cutting them into decorative shapes (squares, rectangles, or small hearts or other cookie-cutter shapes). It looks attractive and saves lots of time!
½ cup heavy cream
1 pound bittersweet chocolate, chopped (use the best that you can find, like Lindt, Callebaut or other high-quality chocolate)
6 ounces (12 tablespoons) unsalted butter
½ cup sifted cocoa powder
Line an 8×8 square pan with plastic wrap. Combine cream, chocolate and butter in a double boiler, and simmer over warm water until smooth and melted. Pour into the pan and chill. Use plastic wrap to lift out of the pan. Cut into desired shapes and dust with cocoa powder. Store in an airtight container in the fridge for up to two months. Allow truffles to come to room temperature before serving.