Make food gifts but keep it simple, Santa

“It is better to give than to receive” never seems more heartfelt than when you make gifts from your kitchen — and because purses are tight this season, there’s never been a better year to make your way into your loved ones’ heart by way of their stomach.

But what to make? And how to wrap? Use these trusty tips to make your season simple and bright.

● Choose recipes that are easy, and don’t overload yourself by choosing too many things — whittle your list to three or four things you know how to do well or that aren’t new challenges.

● Recipes that contain custards and other egg-based yummies that require refrigeration won’t do. Make sure the food you’re packing is safe for the trip — even if the trip is across town to grandma’s house.

● Choose cookies, bars and candies that travel well and will keep their shape — that triple chocolate fudge-iced cake the shape of the Eiffel Tower probably isn’t the best choice. Less froufrou is more.

● Give away a pint of that apple butter you made back in September. Family members will be spreading your love all year (or for as long as it lasts).

● Read through your recipes in advance. It’s awful to find out the night before you need something that it was supposed to have steeped for four weeks in bourbon or that you can’t find those black walnuts called for at Publix or Kroger.

But don’t stop there. Save cash, go green and get creative with some ideas for packaging your goodies that come from the kitchen, as well. Just open your pantry and find a plethora of parcels you can save from the trash can (and the landfill).

● Use an old nut can for a cookie or fudge tin: Remove the outer label, then trim and glue some festive paper for a bright new look. Wrap with a bow and presto chango, you’re ready to fill it with goodies.

● Use glass (or plastic) oil or vinegar bottles for packaging homemade vanilla or homemade vinegars and ciders.

● Instead of buying tins for cookies, use Mason jars to stack the cookies inside and then tie with a bright bow. Soap jars work well for this, too.

● Use aluminum foil to wrap cookies lengthwise (like a roll) and tie with pretty bows at each end. Tape the foil at the seam to ensure it doesn’t open.

● Line small jewelry pouches with plastic wrap and fill with your favorite spice bouquets — cinnamon sticks, allspice, whole cloves, dried lemon peel — or make a bouquet garni of dried herbs to attach to a recipe that uses them.

If you’re like me, you’ve got a dozen or so baskets in your attic just begging to be useful. Get them down, clean them up and use them to hold small tins, bottles and cookie rolls. Then give an entire basket of gifts for the season.

Still need ideas? Here’s what I’m giving this year (spoiler alert to family members and friends): baskets filled with jars of honey from my beehive, Concord grape jelly that I made in September, cookies and candy (like the sugar cookies below) and a cookbook from my collection. I’ll package it with shrink-wrap (available at Michaels and other craft stores) or tie the whole thing up with a festive kitchen towel and wrap with a bow. Merry, merry.


Homemade Vanilla

Hands on: 10 minutes Total time: At least 3 weeks to steep Makes: 32 ounces

It’s easy to make your own vanilla — and even more fun to give it away to that favorite baker on your gift list. If the price of the beans is too steep (they can cost anywhere from $5 to $6 a bean), feel free to cut this recipe in half and use a smaller bottle. That way, you’ll save on cash and booze.

4 vanilla beans

32 ounces vodka or rum

Clean an old oil bottle by removing the lid and strainer and letting it sit in soapy water for an hour. Remove and rinse well; set aside to dry. Alternatively, you can use any decorative bottle that is food safe.

Place the vanilla beans inside the bottle; pour the vodka or rum over the beans. Let the mixture sit for at least 3 weeks — the longer the better — before giving as a gift. Keeps indefinitely.

Per 1-ounce serving: 65 calories (no calories from fat), no protein, no carbohydrates, no fiber, no fat (no saturated), no cholesterol, trace sodium.


Festive Mulled Wine

Hands on: 10 minutes Total time: 10 minutes Serves: 4

Spice pouch for red wine:

1 stick cinnamon

4 whole cloves

½ teaspoon allspice

1 teaspoon dried rosemary, minced

½ teaspoon dried lemon peel

½ cup granulated sugar

1 bottle (750 milliliter) medium-dry red wine

In a small bowl, mix together the cinnamon, cloves, allspice, rosemary, lemon peel and sugar. Line a spice or jewelry pouch with plastic, and fill with spice mixture. Keeps for 6 months. Attach pouch to bottle of red wine as a gift.

Per serving: 242 calories (percent of calories from fat, 1), trace protein, 31 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams fiber, trace fat (no saturated), no cholesterol, 121 milligrams sodium.


All-in-One Sugar Cookies

Hands on: 15 minutes Total time: 1 hour, 15 minutes Makes: about 3 dozen cookies

This recipe can be used for anything: Roll out shapes, bake and decorate or drop them from a spoon and drizzle with colored sugar. Or add chocolate chips, nuts or other candies to make a different cookie with each batch. When refrigerated properly, this dough doesn’t move much during baking, making it perfect for cut-out cookies.

½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter

½ cup shortening

1 cup granulated sugar

1 egg

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 teaspoon baking powder

½ teaspoon salt

2¼ cups all-purpose flour (plus more for rolling out)

In a large mixing bowl, cream the butter, shortening and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the egg and vanilla and mix until creamy. Scrape the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula.

In another bowl, sift together the baking powder, salt and flour. Add to the creamed mixture and blend until incorporated.

For cut-out cookies: Scrape the dough onto a piece of parchment paper, spread into a 4-by-6-inch rectangle, wrap with the paper and refrigerate for at least 1 hour. Roll, cut and bake as desired. Cut-out cookies take 10 minutes to bake.

For drop cookies: Bake plain or mix in 8 ounces chips, nuts or chopped candies as desired. Using a tablespoon or small ice cream scoop, drop by spoonfuls onto a prepared cookie sheet and bake for 10 minutes.

Per serving: 106 calories (percent of calories from fat, 50), 1 gram protein, 12 grams carbohydrates, trace fiber, 6 grams fat (2 grams saturated), 13 milligrams cholesterol, 46 milligrams sodium.

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