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Saturday, December 7, 2013

5 Homemade Holiday Gifts

It's easy to whip up some homemade gifts for the holidays. I'm not talking about a frumpy sweater lovingly crafted by Aunt Gertie or slaving over those perfect embellished picture frames. I'm talking edibles, consumables, things that won't end up in the next White Elephant gift exchange. Let's face it, most people don't want another frame or random holiday trinket to clutter up their house. So unless you know your buddy needs some new bookends, or you have some fabulous (functional) keepsake from a recent trip abroad, stick to gifts that can be used and through.

Boozy Gifts
This is a category all its own. A quick two that come to mind are preserved fruits and infused vodka. One for the drinker and one for the cook.

1. Preserved Fruits
Years back I saw this article about preserving fruits in alcohol. A friend reminded me about it this holiday season. While it's too late to grab fresh strawberries and melon, it's a great time of year for apples, cranberries and pears. This is more than just brandied cherries. While you can add the boozy fruits to cocktails and punches, when it's cooked down it gives your chef friends a good fruit for pies, ice cream toppings, and tarts without the alcohol.

It's simple. You mix the fruit with some sugar, pour your favorite spirit over it (or just vodka if you want a clean flavor), and let it sit. If you start now you can get it to your friends by Christmas. If you start it later, well, just put a little don't open until after label on it. The longer it sits, the more it infuses. 

(Full Instructions)

2. Infused Vodka
This is another gift that takes around two weeks to perfect, so now is the time to start. You can infuse vodkas with fruits, but my favorite is a rich black tea. After you infuse it, you can pour them in different shaped glass bottles (you can find bottles at Ikea, Pier One, Pottery Barn, or Jo Ann's) to give as gifts. When you have mixed the infusion let it sit for two weeks and strain as needed. You can even get a set of aperitif glasses and tuck one in the gift bag.
  • Add in a cinnamon stick and pumpkin juice left over from making pumpkin puree for a savory vodka. (Some pumpkins are sweeter than others; dissolve sugar in the pumpkin juice if you want a sweeter treat). If you don't want a strong cinnamon favor, pull the cinnamon stick after a couple of days.
  • Boil down cranberries until they soften (but not gel), let them cool thoroughly and then pour in vodka. I keep the cranberries in there for a cocktail garnish, but you can strain off if you want.
  • Pour a 1/4 c of rich black tea leaves in 750 ml of vodka and let infuse for a week or so. I suggest frequent tastings after a few days to get the desired strength. After it reaches the desired strength, strain and bottle. You can use different teas, but go for teas with a rich and strong flavor (like rooibos or hibiscus).
  • Add a couple of vanilla whole beans (split). You can even use pods left over from other holiday recipes. Vanilla leaches out quickly and can over-flavor the spirit, so be sure to taste frequently to ensure it infuses to your tastes. After it reaches the desired strength, strain and bottle. 

Decadent Snacks
While you can make brownies, festive cookies, and even peppermint marshmallows from scratch, who has time for that? Rushing through holiday treats with flour flying, eggs dripping, and batter dribbling makes me feel like Lucy in the chocolate factory. Normally I stay away from Kraft-y convenience snacks, but 'tis the season for refined sugars and enriched flours. I'll admit it, when making mass quantities of holiday snacks, I don't go for the organic sugars or high-end chocolates. Simple works for a quick holiday gift. I usually package a handful of treats in a small bag wrapped with a ribbon. They even have holiday-themed plastic baggies. Packaging them small gives them enough to share if they wish, but keeps the portions small for the health conscious or holiday junk-food overloaded friends.

3. Cookies Dipped in Chocolate
Last year I got the idea to coat Nutter Butters in dark chocolate. It gives it a fancy touch, and it is very simple to do. While the chocolate was still drying, I coated them in peanuts. Just microwave a bag of dark chocolate chips, stirring every 15 seconds until smooth. Dip half of the cookie in the chocolate. Set them on a parchment paper-lined cookie sheet. Sprinkle with chopped nuts. Let cool in the refrigerator. Package when the chocolate is completely hardened.

4. Holiday Pretzel Treats
It doesn't get more Kraft-y than this, but they are tasty, bite-sized snacks that most anyone would love. They are pretzels with a melted Hershey Kiss/Hug or Rolo and an M&M on top. It has chocolate, saltiness, and a festive look (when you use the red and green candies). The good thing is that it's just a touch of junk food, assuming you can keep from scarfing down the whole bag. It takes a little time, especially unwrapping the Kisses, but it's a mindless task that can be completed while listening to holiday tunes or catching up with friends or family. 

You just heat the Kiss-topped pretzels on a cookie sheet on low (170°) for a few minutes. Then put an M&M on each one and let them cool off. (Full Instructions)

5. Hot Cocoa
Hot cocoa is a great, quick holiday gift. Putting it in a mason jar tied with a ribbon is a nice simple way to give it homemade charm. You can layer marshmallows and crushed peppermint on top of the other ingredients for a nice effect. 

For the cocoa mixture:
Mix up powdered sugar, dutch-processed cocoa, powdered milk, and a pinch of salt. You can add a little cayenne pepper and cinnamon for a little kick. I base my mixture on an Alton Brown recipe (full recipe).

Add a layer of cocoa and then a layer of peppermint, more cocoa and then mini marshmallows. If you have a bigger jar, you can continue the layers, but with a small mason jar I usually only get a few layers.

These are just a few holiday gift ideas to get you thinking of good holiday gifts for your group of friends and extended family. They aren't much effort, but they will appreciate a well-crafted, homemade treat.

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