Being a crafty person, I am used to the "Wow, you made this?" exclamations when I give someone a homemade gift. That's often followed by the "Wow, you must have a lot of time on your hands to whip up something this fancy" eyebrow raise.
Well, it's time I let you in on a little secret: I didn't spend that much time on it.
Making your own gifts, particularly the food kind, is simple. And cheap. Cheaper, in fact, than buying a Carrabba's gift card for someone you barely know, or dropping $20 on another tie your dad doesn't need.
The trick is choosing a gift idea, buying supplies in bulk and creating something that is greater than the sum of its parts.
These kind of treats work for a variety of recipients. Who doesn't like food? But they're especially good for those people in your life for whom buying presents is a perplexing task: strange relatives, relative strangers .
Plus, homemade gifts feel personal in a way other gifts don't. Over the years, they have been some of the most memorable gifts I've given and received. I still get asked by a few people each year if I'm going to make a certain strawberry jam I gifted a couple of years ago.
Here are nine gift ideas for this holiday season, handcrafted edible (or drinkable) items that can stand on their own as a smaller gift or jazz up a gift card or cash. Consider making a handful and assembling a food basket.
The most important things to keep in mind when you're crafting these are quality of ingredients and packaging. Because many of these ideas are simple, don't skimp on quality. And when it comes to how you present your present, it's a good idea to stock up on a couple of spools of festive ribbon, a yard of burlap or other holiday-themed fabric, and some yarn. Since you're buying the ingredients in bulk, you'll also need containers -- think mason jars, ceramic bowls and small loaf pans, glass bottles. Craft stores are especially helpful in this regard.
You'll also need some time.
But not that much time.
Infused olive oil
3 to 4 sprigs fresh rosemary
1 tall, sealable glass bottle, 8 ounces or so
This gift in particular benefits from some good ingredients -- fresh herbs are used to infuse medium- to high-quality olive oil with a distinct yet subtle flavor perfect for everyday cooking. To make, wash fresh rosemary sprigs and dry them thoroughly. You might need to leave them out overnight to make sure they are dry. (You don't want to mix anything wet with the oil.) Do the same with an empty bottle -- a tall glass bottle works best here, about 8 ounces or so.
When everything is dry, crush herbs slightly to release some of their oils, then place them in the bottle. Pour enough olive oil into the bottle to cover the herbs and almost fill the bottle. Seal the bottle.
For best results, let the oil sit 1 or 2 weeks before using it.
On the gift tag: Oil keeps for about a month, maybe a tad longer if kept refrigerated. If the herbs start to spoil or smell, discard the whole thing.
Apricot Riesling Jam
2 1/2 pounds apricots, halved and pitted
2 cups sugar
1/2 cup white wine, like Riesling
Mason jars, any size
Jam is always a hit. This particular flavor provides something most people won't already have in their fridge. You'll want to use a mason or other glass jar for this jam. If you're a canner, you can run it through a water bath and make it shelf-stable. Otherwise, the jam will keep for a month in the fridge. To make, combine apricots, sugar and wine in a large heavy saucepan over medium-high heat. Stir to dissolve sugar, then let cook for about 20 to 30 minutes. Cook over medium heat, stirring more as mixture starts to thicken, until most of the liquid is gone and the mixture is thick. To test for doneness, place a small amount on a cold plate and chill for 2 minutes. Drag your finger through the jam; if it leaves a clear path through the jam that doesn't fill in, it's ready. This make about 2 pints; divide jam among various jars. Seal and keep refrigerated. For another flavor option, try substituting the apricots for plums and the white wine for red wine.
On the gift tag: Apricot Riesling Jam will keep in the refrigerator for up to 1 month.
Small glass bottles, anywhere from 2 to 8 ounces
This is one of the easiest things to make, with the biggest payoff. Buying supplies in bulk allows you to create your own vanilla extract for cheaper than what high-quality extracts sell for in the store. To make, slice open lengthwise 1 vanilla bean per extract you are making. Tahitian or Madagascar vanilla beans are always good, but any kind will do. Slice each bean in half the other way if needed, and place one in each small glass bottle so it fits entirely in the bottle. Fill the bottles with vodka (cheap vodka works fine) until the beans are covered, then seal. That's it. The extract comes out best if you allow the bottles to sit for 1 or 2 months.
Why are we using vodka? Pure vanilla extract is actually made by soaking vanilla beans in a diluted ethyl alcohol solution, so we're subbing vodka here for a similar effect. In fact, for vanilla extract to be considered pure (as opposed to imitation) by the Food and Drug Administration, the solution has to be composed of at least 35 percent alcohol for every 100 grams of vanilla bean. (You could also use bourbon, but vodka provides a cleaner flavor.)
On the gift tag: Let extract sit for at least 1 month and up to 2 months, shaking the bottle periodically to distribute any flavors that might sink to the bottom. Use as you would store-bought vanilla extract.
See-through jars or containers, any size
This is a great gift to pair with an air popper (or a movie), which has become an addictive mainstay on my kitchen counter. You'll need to find some loose popcorn kernels. Most grocery stores sell them in the white or yellow variety. We have found red kernels at stores like Bulk Nation, which adds a festive note to this present. Simply layer different popcorn colors in a glass jar, then give with one of the two spice mixes below for a healthy homemade snack.
On the gift tag: To make, add 3 tablespoons of canola oil or coconut oil to a large pan with a heavy bottom. Heat oil until hot, then add 1/3 cup unpopped popcorn. Cover with a lid immediately. When the kernels start to pop, shake the pan back and forth a bit, every 5 seconds or so. Popcorn is ready when the popping slows to every few seconds. Remove the pot from the heat and season immediately.
Southwest Dip Mix
1 tablespoon dried parsley flakes
3 tablespoons dried minced onion
2 tablespoons chili powder
2 tablespoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper
Small jars or containers
Dip mixes are popular at holiday markets and other craft fairs, and usually they sell for at least $5 a package. You can make your own for much less. This can also be used as a seasoning mix (and sprinkled on the popcorn in the previous item) to flavor meats, potatoes and more. The recipe yields half a cup, which should be good for at least two smaller jars or containers. To make, divide the ingredients in half, then layer into jar or container for a nicer presentation. Alternatively, you could just mix all ingredients in a bowl thoroughly, then divide between jars or containers.
On the gift tag: Add 3 tablespoons Southwest Dip Mix to 1 cup mayonnaise and 1 cup sour cream (or Greek yogurt). Stir and top with chopped scallions. Serve with crackers or carrots.
10 sprigs dried herbs
2 cups salt
Small jars or containers, 2 to 4 ounces
Just like with the infused olive oil, a little bit of herbs go a long way in this salt mixture. Plus, it looks really pretty. Buy some dried herbs at the store or dry your fresh ones out (if you, like me, happen to have a lot left over from Thanksgiving cooking) by stringing them up near a window and letting them hang out for about a week. Either way, opt for herbs like oregano, rosemary, sage and thyme for this gift. Remove the stems from each, so you get mostly leaves, then run a knife through a pile of them so you get smaller pieces. Place in a food processor and chop even finer, then add salt and pulse to blend together. Place in container, seal and store at room temperature for up to 6 months. For a nice presentation, you could do a set of three or four salts and place a different herb in each one.
On the gift tag: This flavored salt is used best in grilling and cooking, or as a popcorn topping. Store at room temperature for up to 6 months.
Loose-leaf tea, any kind
1- or 2-size coffee filters
Using small coffee filters, you can make your own tea bags and fill them with whatever kind of tea your recipient might enjoy. Go to a store that sells loose tea in bulk (like a health-food store) and stock up on an ounce or so of a couple of different kinds. To make, use 2 teaspoons loose-leaf tea per 1 filter, and do the following: Fill the filter with the tea, then start folding. Fold down the top right-hand corner toward the center, crease and repeat on the left side. Cross over the first fold so the two folds overlap. On the right side again, make a slightly smaller fold inward toward the middle; repeat on left side. This time, the two folds shouldn't overlap. Then, start folding down the top of the bag, two or three times until it seems secure. Staple a piece of yarn or twine, about 5 inches long, over the fold to seal the bag. Three ounces of tea will make about 36 bags. Stack up 6 or 8 in a small container. For added whimsy, pair with honey sticks and a mug.
On the gift tag: Place tea bag in 1 cup hot water, let steep for a few minutes. Stir and enjoy.
2/3 cup light brown sugar
6 cups white whole wheat flour
2 cups yellow cornmeal
2 tablespoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon salt
Jars or containers
Here is a gift your guests can use on Christmas morning. To make the pancake mix, add all ingredients to a large bowl and mix well. Divide into 6 jars or bags. If you want to go the extra mile, divide each ingredient into sixths first, then layer ingredients in the jar or bag for a pretty presentation. Seal jar or bag.
On the gift tag: Attach a card with the following instructions for making the pancakes.
Buttery Homemade Pancakes
2 large eggs
1/2 stick unsalted butter, melted, plus more for the skillet
1 1/2 cups whole milk
1 jar or bag Pancake Mix
Butter and maple syrup, for serving
Whisk the eggs, butter and milk in a bowl. Add Pancake Mix and whisk until smooth. Let stand for 15 minutes (for lighter pancakes).
Heat a large griddle or buttered nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Drop 1/4-cup mounds of batter into the skillet (3 to 4 pancakes per batch) and cook until the batter begins to bubble on the surface, about 2 minutes. Flip and cook for 2 minutes more.
Transfer to serving plates. Repeat with the remaining batter. Serve hot with butter and syrup.
1 2/3 cups flour
2 large eggs
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
Like to make your own pasta at home? Farfalle (the kind shaped like little bow ties) makes for an attractive gift. Follow the recipe below to make 3/4 pound of pasta. And here is a trick to packaging it for gifts: Let it dry for at least 24 hours on a wire rack (or kitchen towel with some flour on it) before placing it into clear bags and tying shut. If you aren't accustomed to making the stuff from scratch, simply buy some flavored or colorful pasta at the store and make a Pasta Night basket with tomato sauce, garlic cloves, a colander and a cheese grater.
To make pasta:
Mix flour, eggs, olive oil and salt in a large bowl until just combined; use a fork or your hands. Turn dough out onto a floured surface and knead for 8 to 10 minutes, until elastic. Wrap dough in plastic wrap and let it rest for about 15 minutes. Divide dough into two pieces, then roll one onto a floured surface with a rolling pin until very thin. Use a knife or pizza cutter to cut dough into long, 1-inch strips. Cut strips so each one is 1 inch by 1 1/2 inches, a rectangle. Pinch the centers of the rectangles together to create a bow tie look. Dry out as directed above.
On the gift tag: Bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Cook pasta for 5 minutes and serve with sauce of your choice.
If you'd prefer to place an order
Perhaps the easiest way to give someone the gift of food this holiday season (and so much better than the stale gift card) is to sign them up for one of these increasingly popular mail-order food services.
Started in 2012, this snack service sends monthly boxes to your doorstep filled with three or five snack packages (usually around 3 or 4 ounces). There are more than 100 options, ranging from Teriyaki Turkey Jerky to Praline Pumpkin Seeds to Honey Dijon Pretzels. These are relatively healthy snacks, all 200 calories or less per serving (but trust me, it's hard to eat just one serving of those pretzels) and free of things like high fructose corn syrup, artificial colors and sulfites. Snackers can hand-pick snacks each month or let Nature Box choose. Boxes start at $19.95 per month. naturebox.com.
It seems like there is a new meal delivery service every week. But of the handful we've tried, Blue Apron has consistently proved to be worth the money. And this time of year, anything that helps get dinner on the table quicker can be a lifesaver. The subscription service delivers to your doorstep preportioned ingredients needed to make complete meals for two or four people. Each box also comes with thorough instructions, so novice cooks won't be too intimidated; experienced cooks will appreciate the wide range of recipes and exotic ingredients. After signing up for at least one week, you can opt to get boxes sent as often as every week, or skip weeks until you want the next one. To give as a gift, Blue Apron offers one-, two- or four-week options. One box containing three meals for two people costs $59.94. (For our review of this service and two others, go to tbtim.es/mealservices.) blueapron.com.
There are many out there, but most follow the same basic premise: Pay a monthly fee and get access to a variety of discounted wines. Some, like Club W, put emphasis on finding out your preferred flavor profiles and choosing wines it thinks you might like. The monthly service also lets you send back wines you don't like, and skip months at a time. Others, like Naked Wines, focus on a specific region of wines, mostly Californian. Times food critic Laura Reiley says she just ordered a deeply discounted case from this service for the holidays; many services are offering extra bottles and percentages off this month. One of the oldest wine services, Wine of the Month, emphasizes value wines and is a good option for new wine drinkers.
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