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Column Fri Dec 18 2009

Give the Gift of Food

Homemade Twix BarsIt's the holiday season, and if you're like me, you've barely thought about shopping, let alone had the time to create cute nametags for all of your beautifully wrapped gifts. There seems to be a bit of ennui out there in my own circle related to the holidays this year. Maybe it's that there are so many unemployed or underemployed people? Or maybe it's that the number of pleas for end-of-year donations seem more desperate or more greater in number than usual?

Regardless of the cause, one of the things I know that makes me feel better is food. Eating tasty food provides enjoyment, but making tasty food for people I like provides a different and honestly longer lasting period of enjoyment. And the good thing about making food for people, is you can often make food and purchase an inexpensive jar for less than you would spend if you purchased something new. A jar of peanut sauce from Whole Foods as a gift? You'll get a raised eyebrow. But a jar of homemade peanut sauce as a gift? You'll likely get a more appreciative smile.

Giving cookies at this time of year is very common. Very, very common. And I have no intention of discouraging that at all. Cookies are great. But they go stale within a week or so. And there are so many treats at office parties, family gatherings and the like that cookies may not always be the best gift to give. Other food gifts can be made inexpensively in just as much (or less) time than it takes to make cookies that will last for a lot longer. Come the middle of January, don't you want to know that someone in your life is smiling and thinking of you as they pour their homemade peanut sauce over broccoli and rice?

A nice thing about giving cookies is that they don't need refrigeration. Many of the gifts that I'll be listing below do, or they need to be preserved and canned. So plan accordingly when you're giving your gift, and keep in mind that it is safe to keep most things at room temperature for 4 hours before you have to worry about ugly things developing in your bottle of holiday yum.

Alcoholic gifts don't need to be refrigerated. Sure it's more expensive than some of the other things, but it is very easy to create a flavored vodka which will make even a cheap vodka taste better. I like the Svedka brand vodka for this. And if you doubt that it is easy, here is a previous post on making cinnamon-flavored vodka. You can also infuse vodka with any other spice, herb (put dried herbs in a piece of cheesecloth or coffee filter to keep your spirit clear), or fruit. Got a friend who likes Bloody Marys? How about adding some horseradish root with the vodka? Got a friend who thinks that Pomegranate-flavored everything is fantastic? Fresh pomegranates are still fairly easy to find. Got a friend who loves vanilla-flavored vodka? Get a real vanilla bean, split it in half, and pop it in your bottle for two weeks. Depending on the cost of your flavoring agent, you should be able to get away with spending less than $12 for a decent gift. And if you start now, it'll be infused enough by New Year's Eve to enjoy.

If you want something slightly different, you could use this Epicurious.com recipe to make lemoncello. This potent and flavorful liqueur can be divided into small jars so you can get several gifts out of one batch.

Or perhaps you might like this Homemade Irish Cream Liqueur recipe? This will need to be refrigerated, but it will last a couple of weeks, and it doesn't take very long at all to make.

Or if you have friends who bake frequently, you can make your own vanilla extract, which couldn't be simpler. And since most people would be happy with 2 ounces of extract, you can turn 1 cup of rum and 3 vanilla beans into 4 gifts in about 20 minutes.

Or perhaps you want to try making chocolate truffles? If bought from a store, truffles are a little pricey, but even a few would make a nice gift for someone--and most people like chocolate, right? Well, this Cooking for Engineers recipe includes enough pictures that you should be able to find success. And this recipe at Chow.com has a slightly different final result.

And if you like the idea of giving sweet treats, but know you're not going to roll out batch after batch of cookies, I can attest that these Imitation Twix bars are tasty enough that one batch will get you several gifts. I don't normally like caramel, and I could have eaten many of these. I highly suggest sprinkling just a little kosher or sea salt on top--it really brightens the flavors and creates a great presentation.

If you've got people in your life that are far more into salty foods than sweet foods, then may I suggest something more savory...something that will likely last them into the new year?

I wrote about making Onion Marmalade a few years ago and it has become one of my favorite things to share with people. One batch of this will set you back about $2 (not including the cost of the jar) for 4-5 gifts. And if you've got friends who swear they can't cook, tell them to pour it over brie and bake for 10 minutes at 350°F--they'll have a great appetizer for that party they keep meaning to throw. Or you could tell them to put 1 cup of marmalade in a frozen pie crust, bake according to the crust directions, and sprinkle a handful of goat cheese over top before serving a truly gourmet but delightfully easy first course. Or suggest they place a tablespoon or two on top of a piece of white fish before baking. It's a great way to eat healthily but still tastily.

While we're on appetizers, you can turn a small can of black or green olives and a few basic ingredients into your own Olive Tapenade. This is great with crackers, or you could stir a tablespoon into basic marinara sauce for a dressed up quick pasta dinner, or if you really want to go all out, you could mix it with some ricotta and use it as a filling for some homemade ravioli. It also tastes great with some lemon juice and olive oil poured over top of a chicken breast or pork chop.

If you've got a little more money to spend, you could try this fantastic Malaysia Satay Peanut Sauce recipe. It will require you to go to a market that caters to an Asian clientele and it will need to be refrigerated. But it should last for a few weeks in the refrigerator in case you're giving it to someone who doesn't eat at home very often.

Living near Devon and Western I'm able to buy huge bags of almonds for relatively little money. This year I decided to turn some of them into Balsamic Glazed Almonds. This was the recipe I used and they were delightfully tasty with just a wee hint of spice. Make sure you cook them until the liquid has evaporated, because when you pour it out to cool you'll end up with almond brittle instead of candy-coated almonds.

Say you know someone who has vowed to start eating a healthy breakfast, but you know they're not likely to actually cook? You can make them instant oatmeal by pulsing 1/4 cup of rolled oats per serving, sugar, and spices in a food processor for a few seconds. You can add nuts or chopped dried fruit, package it into individual zipper-closed bags. All they have to do is add hot or boiling water, stir and eat. It's just as convenient as instant oatmeal but significantly cheaper, still contains most of the fiber that rolled oats have, and not a preservative in sight. Provide them with the instructions to make their own.

The good thing about all of these recipes is that they're cheap, fairly easy to make (even by people who have more anxiety than comfort when in the kitchen), and it's a rare person indeed who would be unhappy with a gift of food. And there are literally thousands of recipes online to show you how to make cakes in a glass jar to give, or soup mixes, or bread mixes, or so much more. So if you're overwhelmed and hate the idea of hitting the mall to shop, head to one store where you can purchase glass jars (even your hardware store is likely to still have a variety of canning jars) and the grocery store and then spend a few hours making gifts that you'll be proud to give and your friends will be happy to receive.

 
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Sara / December 18, 2009 3:48 PM

Hooray! My holiday spirit was flagging but is now officially revived. I'm off to make some homemade Twix for friends and family.

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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

The State of Food Writing

By Brandy Gonsoulin

In 2009, food blogging, social media and Yelp were gaining popularity, and America's revered gastronomic magazine Gourmet shuttered after 68 years in business. Former Cook's Illustrated editor-in-chief Chris Kimball followed with an editorial, stating that "The shuttering of Gourmet reminds...
Read this feature »

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Drive-Thru is the food and drink section of Gapers Block, covering the city's vibrant dining, drinking and cooking scene. More...
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