Baking spirits bright (and other homemade holiday gifts)

Some people look forward to the holidays for the time spent with family and friends or for the thrill of giving and receiving presents. Me, I look forward to the food.

I’m not alone, of course. Ask anyone you meet, and you’ll find that he or she has at least one particular food associated with the month of December, whether it’s from a family meal, a religious tradition, or those special treats (like my aunt’s homemade caramels – oh, my!) that only appear once a year. Curiously enough, even in an era of plenty when almost any food item can be bought at any time of the year, we reserve certain foods for holiday feasting and revelry just as much as our ancestors did in times of want. Perhaps there’s something in us that longs for a cyclical, seasonal approach to eating, after all.

The flip side to holiday food traditions, then, comes from sharing those seasonal delights as gifts with friends and family. We’ve reached a saturation point and have come to realize that more stuff doesn’t make us happier. So why not try ditching those store-bought gifts in favor of sharing one of your favorite food traditions?

Homemade food gifts have many advantages over the frenzy of buying presents. Making a special treat allows you the chance to share a family recipe and a meaningful part of your personal history. Using your kitchen skills to create gifts is usually more economical as well, and it can also allow you to recycle empty bottles, jars, or tins as gift containers. Best of all, cooking up presents allows you to showcase some of your favorite local foods and to share the local bounty. And even if you don’t feel like a celebrity chef, you can still come up with gifts that nourish body and soul.

Making homemade food gifts doesn’t have to take much time, and even if you haven’t planned ahead for holiday gift-giving, you’ll still find some ideas here for last-minute presents that might just start new holiday food traditions.

The Ethicurean will also be posting our second annual gift guide on Monday with more ideas for encouraging those in your life to enjoy, cook, and preserve SOLE food.

Treats for the sweet

If you love to bake as much as I do, December gives you the chance to dazzle friends and family with old favorites and new treats. Like many other diehard bakers, I have no sense of restraint when it comes to piling up batches of cookies and other sweet treats for those people on my gift list. By popular demand (and I do mean demand), I’ve had to make a few items the core of my holiday baking repertoire: ginger-molasses cookies, a softer version of gingersnaps; shortbread (usually flavored with chai spices); sunshine cookies, an orange-ginger adaptation of regular sugar cookies; at least two kinds of biscotti; and my longtime traditional favorite, baklava. After that, I may try a couple of other new cookie recipes, depending on the amount of time I have available before needing to ship out boxes.

Over the past few years, I’ve been able to find more and more baking ingredients locally, including flour, eggs, butter, honey, maple syrup, and dried fruit (usually dried in my oven). As I find more local ingredients, I want to show them off a little more. Some find a chance to shine in the yeast breads that I bake closer to Christmas for friends in town, and I’ve even occasionally made cheddar crackers using shredded cheese from nearby Amish country. Though I have a difficult time finding local nuts (no pecans here in Ohio, and the walnut crop suffered this year), I usually make a couple different kinds of spiced nuts, too.

Any of these baked goods can provide an easy solution to last-minute gift dilemmas – the spiced nuts are especially easy and require less than an hour – and they are always appreciated!

Preserving traditions

If you spent part of the summer neck-deep in produce, empty jars, and steam from a canner, you might want to consider sharing some of your homemade preserves as holiday gifts. Whether you’ve put up pickles, relishes, jams, chutneys, or any other kind of delicious preserve, you’re sure to have a jar or two that you can spare for someone on your gift list. (I know I always have more jam than I can possibly use in a year.)

Another way to share some of your local produce with friends is to make fruit liqueurs. A simple liqueur usually combines a sugar syrup, fresh but bruised fruit (to release the flavors and juices), a neutral alcohol (often vodka), and occasionally spices, allowed to steep for several weeks before being strained into a gift bottle (or an iced tea bottle, sterilized and reused). An even simpler method would be to steep the fruit in brandy or wine, as mentioned earlier this year at Culinate.

Since the harvest season is over for most of us, you may find it difficult to whip up any last-minute gifts like these, though late-season produce can make excellent chutneys or fruit compotes. But remind yourself next year to make extra when canning!

Peace on herb

Going beyond the immediately available foods of the season, you can look to the garden for gift ideas. An herb garden, in particular, can provide endless possibilities for projects and presents. Over the years, I’ve tried a number of things:

  • herb-infused vinegar, made by pouring boiling vinegar over fresh herbs and allowing the mixture to steep in a glass jar for a few weeks; favorite combinations include borage and dill in white vinegar and basil in cider vinegar
  • herb-infused honey, made by pouring warmed honey over fresh or dried herbs or edible flowers
  • herb-infused sugar, made by layering herb leaves (or blossoms, if edible) with granulated sugar and grinding the mixture together
  • herbal tisanes, mixes of favorite dried herbs for gentle brews
  • bunches of dried herbs for cooking

Friends who enjoy cooking will appreciate these gifts most, but if you’re willing to take an additional step – to bake brownies using mint-infused sugar, for example, or to offer a recipe that highlights the gift – you should be able to persuade almost anyone to give these treats a try.

If you haven’t got an herb garden of your own, borrow a friend’s – herbs tend to grow prolifically, and there’s usually plenty to share. You can also find fresh herbs at the farmers market, or check out local greenhouses to find potted herbs you can grow inside this winter.

Think globally, give locally

Of course, the holidays can be a hectic time of year, and you may not have time to make such tempting treats for everyone on your gift list. That’s when you need to turn to the professionals, the people and companies in your local area who are already making food items you can give as gifts. Don’t just think about handing off a present, though. Consider ways to share the experience, too:

  • GOOD IDEA: a bottle of wine from the local winery
    BETTER: a bottle of wine from the local winery, along with a “gift certificate” for a shared outing to tour the winery in the fall (maybe you can help crush the grapes!)
  • GOOD IDEA: a collection of locally-made jams and preserves
  • BETTER: same collection, with a “gift certificate” promising to make a loaf of bread to go with the jams at a later date
  • GOOD IDEA: making a donation to the local food-bank in the recipient’s name
  • BETTER: accompanying that donation with a collection of canned goods gathered at your (or your family’s) holiday party

Don’t forget the power of delayed gratification, either. Since much of the joy in receiving gifts comes from the anticipation, why not offer “gift certificates” for something you’ll give later, when the holidays have passed and you have more time? One Christmas, my mother gave me a coupon book with each page representing a favorite dish she would make for me (with two days’ notice) if my week’s schedule looked too crazy – one of the best gifts ever! If you’re a baker, you can offer to bake bread or a batch of cookies later in the winter, when spirits are flagging and need a little pick-me-up. If you love to cook gourmet meals, offer to make dinner some evening when your schedules mesh.

And if all else fails, put your gift-giving money toward supporting a good food-related cause. Culinate recently listed several worthy programs and charities that could use your help at a time of the year when fresh food may be scarce.

So why not start a new holiday tradition this year? Try combining a love of good food with your gift-giving, and you might just find that that’s all you’ll ever have to do for the holidays again!

Garam Masala Pecans with Lime

Makes 2 cups

  • 1 T melted butter
  • 1 T vegetable oil
  • 1/4 c sugar (I use the sugar at the bottom of a bag of candied ginger)
  • 1 tsp kosher salt
  • 1 tsp garam masala
  • 1/2 tsp ground cardamom
  • 1/2 tsp ground ginger
  • 1/2 tsp ground coriander
  • Freshly grated peel of one lime
  • 2 c raw pecan halves

Preheat oven to 250 F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Combine all the ingredients, except the pecans, in a large bowl and whisk until well combined. Add the pecans and toss until completely coated.

Transfer the nuts to the prepared sheet and arrange in a single layer. Place in the oven and cook, stirring every 15 minutes, until lightly colored and dried out, about 45 minutes.

Remove from the oven, immediately loosen the nuts with a spatula, and set aside to cool before serving.

Mint Sugar

Makes 1 cup

  • Handful of mint leaves (peppermint and chocolate mint work very well)
  • 1 c granulated sugar

Spread mint leaves on a plate and allow to dry for a day or two.

In a small food processor or grinder, grind mint leaves and sugar until leaves are finely chopped. Store in glass jar.

Replace up to 1/4 c regular sugar with mint sugar in recipes such as brownies. Also good for sprinkling on fresh fruit such as strawberries or peaches.

4 Responsesto “Baking spirits bright (and other homemade holiday gifts)”

  1. Eve Fox says:

    These are great! I just compiled a long list of socially-conscious gift ideas for people who are into food:

    I’d like to add to it if others have seen good gift guides.


  2. Lesley says:

    I just placed an order with these guys for gifts:

    If you haven’t already, you should check them out (the cheeses are all vegetarian, too).

  3. Jan says:

    Good article – makes me realize I had better get the spoon busy in the various pans that provide some of those Christmas treats!

  4. Deb says:

    These are great recipes. I am making some homemade organic beauty products but I think I will make some of these things too. Thanks!