Food gifts can be quick, easy way to treat everyone on your Christmas list
It's easier to come up with a list of people to give gifts to than the actual presents themselves.
After your spouse, kids and parents, there's a whole slew of gifting to do for distant relatives, neighbors, family friends, co-workers, kids' teachers and newspaper and mail delivery folks, and though a $10 or $20 gift card to Starbucks or iTunes would certainly be easy and well-received, most of us don't have room in the budget for an extra few hundred dollars worth of plastic cards.
But if you can find a few hours to fiddle in the kitchen, you can make homemade gifts that have a whole lot more personality than a last-minute trinket from the 24-hour drugstore on the corner. Almost any food that doesn't require refrigeration can be gifted, but it helps if the food is something out-of-the-ordinary, beef jerky or marshmallows, perhaps, that the recipient isn't likely to make for him or herself. You can also make a big batch of goodies — think spiced nuts, granola, candied citrus peel or cheese crackers — that you can give to a number of people.
Ready-to-eat sweets are an easy gift. We all have our favorite cookies, bars, truffles and candies to make, especially this time of year, and you can spiff them up by wrapping them in colorful cellophane or putting them in holiday tins. Cake pops or cake balls have become hugely popular in recent years, and although they do require a few specialty items such as lollipop sticks and chocolate candy melts that you can find at bake shops and craft stores, they aren't too hard to make. (To find a step-by-step tutorial, go to Austin360.com/food for a 2010 story we did on making Easter cake pops. While you're at it, you can get a refresher on making homemade marshmallows and graham crackers also with this story online .)
If you're feeling up to the challenge, consider making colorful macarons, the other current darling of the dessert world. Unlike the coconut macaroons most Americans are familiar with, the French macaron requires quite a bit more work, but they are a real treat to give.
Erick Nixon, executive chef of Fleming's Prime Steakhouse and Wine Bar downtown, makes chocolate truffles to surprise first-time guests to the restaurant or for diners who are having anniversaries or birthdays. If you're not too handy with a whisk or electric mixer, you can take the super-easy route and infuse sugar with fragrant ingredients such as lemon, grapefruit or orange zest, vanilla beans, star anise, cinnamon sticks, cardamom pods, crystallized ginger or fresh rosemary or mint. In a pint or half pint jar, layer granulated sugar with one (or more, if you're feeling inventive) of the infusing ingredients and seal with an airtight lid. Shake the jar every day for a week and your sugar will take on the aroma and flavor of whatever else is in the jar. Wrap a pretty ribbon around the jar and give with a box of tea or simply a note saying how sweet your friend is.
Spice mixes can be the perfect gift for the right person, but not everyone appreciates a steak or curry mix made with freshly ground spices as much as I would. Beef jerky, on the other hand, is almost always a welcome present, and don't be surprised if half of it is gone before the party or gift exchange is over. A dehydrator is handy for drying out the thinly cut strips of meat — ask the butcher at the grocery store to remove the fat and thinly slice a sirloin or top round for you — that have been marinated in soy sauce, garlic, pepper and Worcestershire sauce, but you can also use an oven set to 200 degrees for six to eight hours.
For the drinking enthusiast on your gift list, get crafty in your home bar and mix up a homemade liqueur or infusion for Christmas this year. You don't need a degree in chemistry to make this kind of spirited gift. All you need is a base spirit, a flavoring agent, and a sweetener.
Vodka is the most common base spirit for infusions, as it provides a neutral palate that will showcase the flavors best, but for a richer body profile, brandy or cognac work as well. Next, choose what flavors you want to infuse into the spirit. Herbs, spices and fruits are all fair game. Try citrus peels, cinnamon sticks or rosemary. Put the ingredients into the bottled base spirit and let the mixture rest. After a day of infusing, taste to see how quickly the flavor matures. Check every day until it reaches your desired flavor.
Strain out the flavoring ingredients, and you have an infusion that's ready to gift. If you think the mixture needs more sweetness and body, transform it into a liqueur by adding simple syrup. There's no hard and fast rule that dictates what proportions to use, so you'll have to experiment to create the preferred final flavor. The general rule is 1 1/2 cups of base spirit to up to a tablespoon of spice to 1/2 cup of simple syrup. As with cooking and mixing drinks, you can always add more sugar later, so start off with a small amount and adjust to taste.
With additional information from Liquid Austin columnist Emma Janzen.
Caramel Bacon Peanut Bark
Salty and sweet. Savory and rich. It's the treat for chocolate fans who think they've tried it all. We start with a smooth, rich pool of melted milk chocolate, then scatter chopped peanuts over that. On top of that goes a healthy scattering of cooked and crumbled bacon. Trust us — the salty-savory-sweet flavors play so well together. But we didn't stop there. Over that goes a drizzle of caramel and a sprinkling of flaked sea salt.
12 oz. maple or brown sugar bacon
Two 12-oz. packages milk chocolate bits
1 1/2 cups chopped peanuts (salted or not)
10-oz. bag soft candy caramels
Large flake sea salt
Line a baking sheet with waxed paper.
Heat a large saute pan over medium-high. Working in batches, add the bacon and cook until very crisp. Transfer to paper towels to drain, then repeat with remaining bacon. Set aside to cool completely. Once cooled, crumble the bacon into small pieces.
Place the chocolate bits in a medium microwave-safe bowl. Microwave on high for 1 to 2 minutes, stirring every 20 seconds, or until melted and smooth. Pour the chocolate onto the prepared baking sheet, then tap it on the counter to settle the chocolate into an even, smooth puddle.
Immediately sprinkle the peanuts and bacon evenly over the chocolate. Allow the chocolate to fully harden, about 15 to 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, place the caramels in a medium microwave-safe bowl. Microwave on high for 1 to 2 minutes, stirring every 20 seconds, or until melted and smooth. Drizzle the caramel over the bark, then sprinkle lightly with the sea salt. Allow to cool and harden, then break into pieces. Makes 24 servings.
— Alison Ladman, The Associated Press
The truffles can be out of the fridge for a few hours as long as they are resting in a cool place, so they don't get too hot and melt. They have a creamier texture when they are allowed to warm slightly.
6 oz. heavy cream
Zest of 1/2 orange
13 oz. semisweet chocolate
1/2 cup cocoa powder
1/2 cup white chocolate shavings
In a medium-large saucepan, heat the heavy cream and orange zest until it comes to a boil.
While the cream and orange zest are heating, grate the chocolate with a cheese grater into a coarse powder. Add the chocolate to a large mixing bowl and pour the hot cream through a strainer into the chocolate, removing the orange zest. Whisk the chocolate and cream mixture until smooth and all of the chocolate is melted. Pour into a shallow container, such as an 8-inch-by-8-inch glass baking dish, cover and refrigerate for 24 hours. When the chocolate has thoroughly cooled, scoop the mix with a small ice cream scoop or melon baller. Take the scoops and roll into balls using the palms of your hands. Place the cocoa in a mixing bowl and white chocolate shavings into a separate bowl. Roll half the truffles in cocoa and half in white chocolate. Place in the refrigerator until you are ready to present. These truffles can be out of the fridge but in a cool place for several hours.
— Erick Nixon, executive chef of Fleming's Prime Steakhouse and Wine Bar downtown
Orange Chai vodka
A warm, spicy infusion, the orange chai is a surprising flavor mixture that can stand up equally in a dessert drink when mixed with cream and simple syrup, or as a refreshing cocktail mixed with ginger beer. Organic oranges are preferred because the rinds of conventional grown citrus absorb most of the chemicals in the pesticides used to treat them.
1 organic orange
1 liter vodka
3 black chai tea bags
Peel the rind from one fresh organic orange, being careful to take as little of the white pith as possible. Add to 1 liter vodka and let sit 3 to 5 days. Steep three black chai tea bags in orange-flavored vodka for an additional day, or until desired flavor is reached, then strain off the liquid.
— Tito's Handmade Vodka
Mumbai Mixed Nuts
Scant cup turbinado sugar or raw sugar
1 Tbsp. finely ground sea salt
2 tsp. onion powder
2 tsp. garlic powder
2 Tbsp. ground cumin
2 tsp. ground cayenne pepper
2 tsp. ground cinnamon
2 tsp. ground white pepper
2 cups whole roasted unsalted almonds
1 cup walnut halves
2 cups whole roasted unsalted cashews
1 cup shelled unsalted pistachio nuts
2 large egg whites
Preheat the oven to 250 degrees. Combine the sugar, salt, onion and garlic powders, cumin, cayenne, cinnamon, and white pepper in a small bowl. Combine all the nuts in a large shallow casserole. Beat the egg whites until they are frothy and pour over the nuts. Toss the nuts in the egg whites until they are well coated and no egg white remains at the bottom of the casserole. Add the sugar-spice mixture and continue to toss and mix the nuts until they are thickly coated with spices.
Line a large (11-inch-by-17-inch) baking sheet with parchment paper. Transfer the nuts to the baking sheet and gently flatten them into a compact solid layer that covers the entire surface of the pan.
Roast the nuts on the middle rack of the oven for 20 minutes. Rotate the pan and roast the nuts for another 25 minutes. Remove the nuts from the oven, reduce the oven temperature to 140 degrees, and prop the oven door slightly ajar with a wooden spoon. Use a large metal spatula to turn the large clumps of nuts over in the pan. Return the nuts to the oven and allow them to dry for 5 hours.
Cool the pan on a rack for at least 3 hours, until completely cool. Break the nuts by hand into bite-sized clusters and place them in an airtight container. Keep the container in a cool, dry area until you are ready to assemble and deliver the gift.
— From 'Gourmet Gifts: 100 Delicious Recipes for Every Occasion to Make Yourself & Wrap with Style' by Dinah Corley (Harvard Common Press, $19.95)
Candied Citrus Peel
4 organic oranges, washed and dried (you can also use lemon or grapefruit)
1/2 cup sugar
3/4 cup water
Using a vegetable peeler, remove the top layer of skin on the oranges, avoiding as much of the white pith below as possible. Reserve the oranges for another use (they are great for a quick glass of juice!). Cut the zest into 1 1/2-inch-long pieces.
Bring 2 small saucepans of water to a boil — boiling the rind will help remove some of its bitterness. In one pan, boil the zest for 1 minute. Drain and discard the liquid, and put the peels into the second pan. Boil the peels for an additional minute. Drain and discard the liquid.
Combine the peels with the sugar and water in a small saucepan (you can use one of the pans you used for boiling). Cover and bring the mixture to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to low, uncover, and simmer, stirring occasionally, about 25 minutes, pressing down on the skins as needed to make sure that they are covered in the syrup for the entire cooking time. Simmer until almost all of the liquid evaporates and the skins are covered in thick syrup speckled with bubbles.
Meanwhile, lightly oil a wire rack and place it over a baking sheet. Have tongs or chopsticks at the ready.
Test the peel for doneness by moving a single piece to the cooling rack, using the tongs or chopsticks. Crystals should form on the outside within 30 seconds of being removed from the pot. If not, keep cooking the peels and letting the sugar solution reduce further. Test again, and when the peels are done, work quickly to transfer the pieces, one by one, to the rack — don't let them touch one another on the rack. Careful: The candy will be very hot! Allow to cool for 10 to 15 minutes. Store in a paper towel\u2013lined airtight container in the pantry for up to 3 months.
— From 'Can It, Bottle It, Smoke It' by Karen Solomon (Ten Speed Press, $24.99)
My mom makes beef jerky for both my husband and brother-in-law every Christmas, but the best food gift of all time in my family was the family cookbook she assembled a few years ago. She went through her recipe box and pulled out all the favorite or otherwise memorable recipes. She typed up about two dozen of them and added stories about why that particular recipe was special, even if she hadn't made the dish in years. She printed the pages, inserted them into plastic sheet protectors, clipped them into three-ring binders and gave a copy to everyone in the family. She put a lot of work into the books, and I can't think of a more memorable gift in recent years.
Belinda Hulin's book, "The Keepsake Cookbook" (Lyons Press, $16.95), won't make assembling such a family memoir any less work, but she walks you through the process and has lots of advice for making it as special and unique as the family members you are honoring by taking on the project. Hulin writes that she was inspired to write the book after Hurricane Katrina nearly wiped out her mother's collection of recipes and family photos. "Not only do I want people to keep their recipes and their histories alive, but I also want them to bring life back to their tables," she writes. "The important thing is that your culinary heritage is being curated."
Hulin explains how to clarify existing recipes, how to develop recipes for unwritten ones and even how to try to re-create lost recipes even after the person who created it has died, but the book is as much about how to write a memoir as how to write a cookbook. Hulin encourages people to interview relatives to add the backstory to the dishes. What did your family eat when money was tight? Who did the cooking? What was the first meal you made for your spouse?
Making this kind of a keepsake cookbook probably isn't a project to start just a few weeks before Christmas, but holiday get-togethers are a good time to start collecting information from family members you don't see often. Plus, everyone seems to be cooking nostalgic recipes, so you might as well grab a pen and paper and start taking notes.
— Addie Broyles
Holiday Spice Mix
1 cup sugar
1 vanilla bean, split
3/4 cup ground cinnamon (you can use less cinnamon for a slightly less strong spice mix)
1 Tbsp. powdered ginger
1 Tbsp. ground nutmeg
1/2 Tbsp. ground cloves
1/2 Tbsp. ground cardamom
1/2 Tbsp. allspice
1/2 Tbsp. ground anise
Pour sugar into a large jar with a tight-fitting lid. Press vanilla bean halves into the sugar and cover the container. Let stand 3 to 6 days. Remove vanilla beans and reserve for another use. Add remaining spices to the jar, cover and shake vigorously to blend. Using a small funnel, divide the spice blend into eight 2-ounce jars or very small plastic bags. Can be used to spice warm drinks or coffee, to top cookies and muffins or to coat sweets.
— Belinda Hulin, "The Keepsake Cookbook" (Lyons Press, $16.95)
— Addie Broyles