Tuesday, December 9, 2008

13 Foodie Gifts to Make

The time, thought and effort that goes toward a handmade gift always means so much to me, but time we don't always have, do we? Well there's still time to make beautiful homemade gifts for the holidays. Here are a few suggestions:

Homemade Vanilla Extract
You can use vodka, rum, brandy or whatever booze you like; personally I prefer vodka because it is most neutral in flavor. This also tastes great for sipping or in cocktails!

4-6 vanilla beans
1 half-sized bottle vodka, rum, brandy, or desired alcohol (about 375-ml)

Pour off a little of your booze into a glass to make room in the bottle. Split half of the beans lengthwise and scrape out the seeds; add to alcohol, along with the split bean halves. Cut remaining beans into 1- to 2-inch pieces and add to alcohol. Put back some of the removed booze to fill to the top. Replace bottle top and store, tightly covered, in a dark cabinet for 3-6 weeks, shaking daily. The longer it sits, the stronger the vanilla flavor gets.

Some people recommend straining out the vanilla beans, but I quite like those little black flecks floating around.

It's best to store vanilla extract in a dark bottle in a dark cupboard. If you don't have a dark bottle, a fabric wrap would be a nice little extra--otherwise, don't worry about it. Instruct the gift recipient that it should be kept in a dark cupboard.

Extract may be replenished by adding vodka later. The beans will keep for up to 6 years--what a gift! 6 years worth of vanilla extract!

Banana Jam
Joy of Desserts has a truly droolworthy recipe for making your overripe bananas into delectable jam. I'm not one to bother with processing jars, so for me I'd probably just tell my banana-loving recipient to keep this refrigerated and eat it within 2 weeks! Here is her recipe.

Ginger-Infused Vodka
Similar to the vanilla above, this is a fantastically simple and impressive drink.

1 bottle vodka (750-ml)
1/2 cup peeled & chopped fresh ginger

Combine ingredients in a large jar or screw-top container; place in a dark cabinet for 3 days, tightly covered, shaking daily. Strain out ginger pieces and reserve for another use (put in the freezer for future recipes). Return vodka to original bottle (label removed) for gift-giving.

Experiment with this one by adding things like allspice berries, cloves and cinnamon for an all-around holiday flavor, or by using a different type of alcohol, such as rum or brandy.

Pear-Sage Vinegar
This is a lovely vinegar to use in salad dressings.

16 ounces white wine vinegar
1 cup fresh chopped ripe pear
1 tablespoon fresh sage leaves, chopped (or 1 teaspoon dried sage)

Pour off a little vinegar from your bottle; insert remaining ingredients, returning some reserved vinegar to fill, if needed. Set aside for 2 weeks, shaking occasionally. Strain before giving, if desired.

I would be remiss to omit this traditional holiday treat. There are hundreds of recipes out there, but this is my favorite "kitchen sink" fudge.

2/3 cup sweetened condensed milk
2 cups semi-sweet chocolate chips or candy melts*
1 cup dried fruit (your choice--larger pieces should be chopped)
1 cup mini marshmallows

In the top of a double boiler (or in a stainless steel bowl set over a pot of simmering water), melt together sweetened condensed milk and chocolate chips/melts until smooth. Remove bowl to counter and stir in dried fruit first, then marshmallows. Marshmallows will start to melt slightly, so work quickly here.

Spread mixture into a buttered 8-inch square pan and cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate until set. Cut into squares and transfer to a tin lined with parchment paper. Give to a lucky, lucky loved one.

*Candy melts are a chocolate-esque product often sold in candy-making and craft stores and come in various colors and flavors.

Homemade Irish Cream
Not for the kiddos!

1 375-ml bottle irish whiskey
4 ounces chocolate syrup
1 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
1 12-ounce can evaporated milk
1-1/4 cup heavy cream
1/8 teaspoon instant coffee granules

Whisk together all ingredients except whiskey to thoroughly combine. Slowly stir in whiskey until blended. Pour into bottles and refrigerate, shaking daily, for 3-4 weeks before enjoying. (Even if you don't quite have enough time for this, let the gift recipient know to keep it in the fridge and wait another X days before enjoying--I know I'd be happy with it anyway!)

Cream Cheese Truffles
These melt-in-your-mouth truffles do take some time, but the result is oh, so worth it.

8 ounces cream cheese, softened
3 cups confectioners' sugar
3 cups semi-sweet chocolate chips, melted
1-1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract or other flavoring or liqueur, as desired

Beat together cream cheese and confectioners' sugar until smooth. Add melted chocolate and continue beating until completely incorporated, then add vanilla.

Refrigerate mixture for at least 1 hour to firm up. Shape into 1-inch balls and return to refrigerator. Working in batches of about 10-12 at a time, remove from refrigerator and roll balls into desired toppings. Some suggestions include:

- finely chopped nuts
- flaked, toasted coconut
- unsweetened cocoa powder (add a little cayenne pepper for a zesty bite)
- crushed candy canes, cinnamon candies or toffee bits
- candy sprinkles or jimmies


Freeze balls solid before dipping batches into melted chocolate for a hard candy outside. Garnish with edible gold leaf or designs with melted chocolate, sprinkles, jimmies, nuts or crushed candy.

Give as gifts in paper-lined boxes or tins. Keep refrigerated.

Sweet-Spicy Mustard
My aunt used to make this mustard for gifts and at any occasion where there was ham. It is fan-freaking-tastic!

12 ounces dry mustard
1 cup sugar
1 cup white vinegar
3 eggs plus 1 egg yolk, beaten together

Gently whisk together dry mustard and sugar. Transfer dry ingredients to the top of a double boiler already prepared with simmering water. Whisk in vinegar and eggs and heat slowly, stirring constantly, until thickened. Should take around 10 minutes. If you get lumps, no worries--just strain them out. Put mustard in pretty jars and keep in the refrigerator.

Easiest Peanut Butter Cookies Ever
I was given a tin of these back when I worked as a secretary aboard Naval Air Station Key West, FL from a senior coworker. His wife (with whom we also worked--hey, it's a small town) made these and they were unbelievably delicious, especially when you realize what's inside!

Using round butter crackers and peanut butter (chunky or creamy--your choice), make little sandwiches. Dip cracker sandwiches in melted chocolate and place on waxed paper to set up. May need a 2nd dip for a nice, thick coating.

Variation: add a wee bit of peppermint extract to your dipping chocolate.

Homemade Marshmallows
I'm thinking of a cello package filled with holiday-shaped marshmallows, ready for a steaming mug of hot chocolate. I'll point you to Food Network's trusty recipe for this one!

Hot Cocoa Mix
To go with those marshmallows, make some hot cocoa mix.

2 cups powdered sugar
1 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
2 cups dry milk powder
1/2 cup powdered non-dairy creamer
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons arrowroot powder
1/4 teaspooon ground cinnamon

Combine all ingredients in a large bowl and gently mix to combine thoroughly. Pack in jars or gift bags. To make the bagged cones like you see in stores, layer cocoa mix with marshmallows and/or chocolate chips. 1 serving will fill 1/2 of a mug. Include these instructions:

Fill mug halfway with dry mixture; fill with hot water or milk and stir.

Salted Nut Brittle
What holiday would be complete without some peanut (or other nut) brittle? This simple recipe is updated for the current trend in sweet-and-salty treats by using salted nuts--but you can use any nuts you like, salted or unsalted.

1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1 cup light corn syrup
1-1/2 cups salted nuts (I like a tin of mixed salted nuts; use whatever you prefer)

Simmer sugars and corn syrup until temperature is 290*F on a candy thermometer. Stir in nuts all at once and continue to cook to 300*F (hard crack stage). Pour onto a waxed paper-lined sheet pan and, working quickly, spread with a silicon spatula or wooden spoon. Cool and break into pieces. Package in cellophane bags tied with pretty ribbon.

Chocolate Bark
Super easy and never fails to impress, chocolate bark is a simple gift that's quick to put together.

12 ounces white or dark chocolate chips
1/2 cup crushed candy or nuts as desired
1/2 teaspoon vanilla or peppermint extract
4 ounces white or dark chocolate chips (for a drizzle)

Melt 12 ounces of chocolate chips in a double boiler; stir in crushed candy or nuts and extract. Immediately pour onto a waxed paper-lined sheet and spread with a silicon spatula. After your bark has hardened, melt remaining 4 ounces chocolate chips and drizzle over bark. When completely cooled & hardened, break into pieces. Package in cello bags with pretty ribbons.

Variation Ideas:
White Peppermint Bark - white chocolate base, crushed candy canes and peppermint extract with pink candy melts drizzled over the top.
Lemon Bark - white chocolate base, crushed lemon heads candies, lemon extract in drizzle white chocolate.
Chocolate-Cinnamon Bark - dark chocolate base, red hot candies (not crushed), cinnamon schnapps instead of extract, drizzled with milk chocolate

What home-made goodies do you like to make and give?


Anonymous said...

Timely post! Merry Christmas!

Amanda said...

Thanks, Maryann. Merry Christmas!

Mary said...

I make boxes with a variety of Christmas cookies for all of my husband's best clients. The only problem is that this year we have eaten everything I made (finals week hit them hard.) So when I get out of class on Thursday night (last class) I plan on hyping myself up on coffee and getting as many of them done before Saturday as I possibly can.

It could get ugly! ;)

Amanda said...

Wow, that's going to be a lot of work, Mary! But I know what you mean--I have a party coming on Saturday and have done NO cooking. So I'll be up to my elbows in cookie making tomorrow! I'm low-fuss, though--mostly drop & bar cookies for me.

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