Giving from the heart…of your kitchen!
Photo: Stock
Caramel Corn

By Tina Wasserman

The turkey leftovers have been consumed, the holiday music is wafting throughout the malls and the invitations for all the festive gatherings have arrived. The reality of the length of your gift list has sunken in and your “Ho ho ho” is starting to sound like “Oy oy oy!”

What do you do for all the people you want to acknowledge for their kind efforts? You want to give them “just a little something” to thank them for taking in your mail when you were away or watering your plant at the office when you had to go on that business trip. What about the teachers: and the coaches? And the nice secretary who hopes your son feels better when you call school to verify his absence?

The problem is that these people warrant a gift worth under $10-$15 and there are not a lot of great gifts out there in this price range. There are only so many candles and packages of Walkers Shortbread you can give before it starts getting old. So why not really show your thanks for their efforts with a product of your making? A treat from your kitchen makes the statement, “Your friendship is worth my creative time in the kitchen.”

May you enjoy the process of creating and may the recipients of your efforts appreciate the love you put into their gift. If they don’t, next year they get the fruitcake that’s been in the back of your pantry for three years!

Edible gifts

When you’re planning to give gifts from your kitchen, some very important criteria should be considered before you embark on your project:

  • Recipe quantity
  • Preparation time
  • Storage and longevity
  • Size of container
  • Flexibility of purpose

After you decide there are 20 people on your food gift list, you start looking at recipes. If a recipe is very quick and easy, that’s great. But if the recipe makes two cups of candied nuts or two dozen miniature cookies, then you have a problem!

Look for recipes that can be easily doubled or ones that make a large quantity. Candied, spiced nuts that are seasoned and then baked are much easier to prepare in quantity than the nuts that are added to a pot of sugar mixture and then cooked to glaze. The latter needs to be made one pot at a time, and doubling might change the entire flavor and coating efficiency. Many cookie recipes can easily be doubled without affecting the quality of the finished product and if they freeze well, then that recipe is a winner!

Preparation time goes hand in hand with quantity. If the dish can be assembled rapidly and easily repeated, then maybe it isn’t a bad idea to make it even if the quantities are small. Suffice it to say that any recipe that takes a long time to prepare and yields a small quantity is not even on the radar screen for gift giving!

Storage and longevity refer to two areas: your home and their home. When you are making edible gifts, make sure you have plenty of room in your freezer and refrigerator and on your countertops for the finished products. Since you don’t want to wait until the last minute, you want to make sure your 12 dozen cookies can stay fresh in an airtight container on your counter for two weeks or they freeze well. You also want to make sure you HAVE that airtight container or the available freezer space. There is ABSOLUTELY NO GOOD REASON to make great tasting gifts and then give them stale or tasting rancid because you didn’t plan ahead.

Take into consideration to whom you are giving your gift and where it will be presented. If there is only one teachers’ lounge for the whole school, consider giving an alternative gift to the teacher than your great cheese mold. Having it sit on her desk for 8 hours waiting to go home is not quite the gift you would have intended it to be. Frozen gifts of homemade ice cream or sorbet should be given only when the recipient is at home and can immediately place the gift in the freezer. Cookies, candies and nuts are great gifts when cold storage is not necessary.

The size of the container is the major cause of anxiety and frustration with edible gift giving. When you are in the large, beautiful Container Store or craft store, everything looks cute and small. When you get home, you have the rude awakening that the Chinese takeout carton with the metallic stars holds ALL of your recipe instead of a quarter of the total. This translates in one nanosecond to, “Oh my gosh, I have to make this recipe three more times to fill these containers!”

I love to use 8-ounce clear, high-quality, decorative cellophane bags for my treats. The advantage is, you get to see what’s inside, they don’t hold a tremendous amount of treats and you can always give multiple bags with different ingredients if you find you have extra goodies on hand. Whatever you do, don’t get containers larger than 1-pound capacity unless what you are making is light and takes up a lot of room. Candied popcorn is a great example of this.

Flexibility of purpose simply means that you could easily make something from your kitchen that would personalize a more expensive store-bought gift.

Are you the office manager or team leader who must come up with the cheese board or turkey for the employees? Why not make some homemade hot and sweet mustard to personalize the meat? Wrapped up in a jar with a pretty ribbon, this makes the gift look caring instead of obligatory.

Combine gifts. One year I found giant latte cups for $5 at Sam’s. I emptied out the contents and discarded all the baked goods but kept the little packet of coffee. I added a few pieces of homemade biscotti (they stay fresh and don’t break easily), a little sack of four homemade truffles (they do get a little soft but there was nowhere for them to go so they held up well) and a long stick of cinnamon. I wrote the teacher’s name on the cup with a gold paint pen, wrapped the entire cup with clear cellophane and tied it together with some decorative gold wire ribbon that had stars coming out all over it (the inventor of that ribbon should get the Nobel prize! I’m convinced that there is a gene for gift wrapping, and it’s not in my family’s gene pool. I LOVE that wire!).

Edible gifts don’t have to coordinate. Find a small basket; line it with some colorful excelsior or tissue paper; add a jar of cranberry relish, some cookies, a sack of spiced nuts and a wedge of cheese — and you have a terrific gift for someone you care about.

Here’s my only caveat: Plan out on paper who’s getting what. One year my counter was filled with a wide array of goodies and, after putting together several gifts, I started realizing that my creativity was diminishing my supplies at an alarming rate!

Enjoy the process because that added ingredient of love shows through in the tasting. Happy holidays.

Hot and Sweet Mustard

Make this recipe and place it in 4-ounce decorative ball jars. Add a store-bought small salami or wedge of an unusual hard cheese and you have a gift that will be enjoyed.

  • 4-ounce can of dry mustard (Coleman’s)
  • 1 cup apple cider vinegar
  • 2 eggs, slightly beaten
  • 1 cup sugar

1. Mix the mustard and the cider vinegar in the top of a double boiler and allow it to sit for ½ to 1 hour. The longer this mixture sits, the hotter the finished mustard will be.

2. Add the 2 beaten eggs and the sugar to the mustard mixture and stir until blended.

3. Heat this mixture over simmering water for one hour, stirring frequently.

4. Pour into a clean crock or jar and wrap accordingly for your gift giving.

Tina’s Tidbits:

• This recipe for mustard must be kept in the refrigerator after it is prepared as it is made with eggs. It will last for a long time refrigerated.

• The vinegar “cooks” the eggs and the sugar helps preserve them. 

Mexican Dark Chocolate Bark

The combination of chocolate, chipotle and cinnamon is often found in Mexican cuisine. Here I have combined it with coffee to add depth to the flavors and crunch to the mouthfeel.

  • 12 ounces semisweet or bittersweet chocolate or chocolate chips
  • ¼ teaspoon chipotle chili powder
  • ¾ teaspoon cinnamon
  • 2 tablespoons coarsely ground coffee

1. Break the chocolate into pieces if not using chips. Place chocolate in a glass bowl and microwave for 45 seconds on medium-high (8). Stir the chocolate gently with a rubber spatula.

2. Return bowl to the microwave for another 30 seconds on medium-high (8). Remove bowl from the microwave and stir chocolate gently until all pieces are melted. This time should be enough even for thick chocolate chunks.

3. Combine the remaining ingredients with the chocolate and then spread on a piece of parchment or waxed paper. Do not make the chocolate too thin or the bark will melt too easily when handled.

4. Chill bark at room temperature and then cut or break into pieces.

Yield: about 2 cups or 1 pound of chocolate bark.

Tina’s Tidbits:

• Raisins or nuts may be added as well or used to replace the coffee grounds if desired.

• This mixture can be placed in individual small candy molds or in a parchment-lined or greased 8-inch-square pan so that the chocolate will be thick.

• If adding to a pan, when slightly cooled, mark off the size portions so that you can break the chocolate easily.

• Silicon mold trays often have 20 slots and when the chocolate is cold and completely solid, the chocolate will easily pop out.

Homemade Caramel Corn

Here’s an easy recipe for Homemade “Cracker Jacks.” You can add other ingredients or leave the nuts out if you choose.

For many years I taught this recipe to my junior high students, so if there are young recipients on your gift list this will be welcomed.

  • Cooking spray or 1 teaspoon oil
  • 12-15 cups popped corn
  • 1 cup salted cocktail peanuts, optional
  • 2 tablespoons molasses
  • 1 cup light brown sugar, firmly packed
  • 1 stick salted butter
  • ¼ cup light corn syrup
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda

1. Preheat oven to 200 degrees and line 2 rimmed sheet pans with parchment paper.

2. Spray or grease a 4- to 6-quart bowl, add the popped corn and peanuts if using and set aside.

3. In a heavy 3-quart saucepan combine the molasses, brown sugar, butter and corn syrup.

4. Bring the syrup to a boil over medium-high heat and stir only until the sugar has dissolved. Continue boiling until the syrup reaches 250 degrees on an instant-read or candy thermometer.

5. Remove the pan from the heat, immediately add the baking soda and rapidly mix. The mixture will sputter and foam.

6. Pour the syrup over the popcorn and stir until the popcorn is well coated.

7. Spread the coated popcorn into the 2 prepared baking sheets and bake for 45 minutes to an hour or until golden and crisp but not burnt.

8. Let cool at room temperature before breaking large pieces apart.

Tina’s Tidbits:

• Measure your popcorn, don’t eyeball it. If you use too much popcorn the coating won’t cover all the pieces.

• For “Zebra” Caramel Corn, melt some white and milk chocolate chips or coating chocolate and then drizzle in lines over the cooled caramel corn. Let coating harden completely before bagging or serving.

• When mixture is still warm, you can oil your hands, shape the caramel corn into balls or flatten into 1-inch disks and insert a stick into the center for a caramel corn lollipop.

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