We covered cookbook suggestions earlier in the week so today, let’s discuss homemade gifts. Now I know we all slave over these things but let’s be aware that the giving part can go one of two ways. What you hope for is that the item you’ve stressed over and carefully packaged is warmly greeted with a big smile of appreciation. Or it can go the other way, where the recipient looks at you blankly and puts the jar on a side counter where you know it will be forgotten. The later is heartbreaking because you think that thing you put so much time, thought and energy into is fabulous and want everyone to feel the same. This is not always the case. The first thing to understand fully during this holiday season: know your audience. Not everyone appreciates or understands or even wants a homemade gift. And that’s OK. It’s not a judgement against your skills, your kindness or even your worth as a human being. Those are simply the people who get that $8 bottle of prosecco from Trader Joe’s. Don’t sweat it. You’ll both be much happier for it. Save your special treats for those that will appreciate them.
Alright, glad that we got that out of the way because it’s a tough one to fully accept. It can be challenging at times to find just the right gift for the people in your life. With the demands of the holiday season, it seems like you always have to have something on hand – hostess gifts, co-worker gifts, open house gifts. Buying presents for your family isn’t enough – there’s a whole group of OTHER people you have to be nice to. It’s exhausting. And expensive.
So what about giving something homemade to these folks? If you pick the right recipe and package it just so, it’s not as hokey or as difficult as you might think. But be careful because it can get more expensive than you think if you’re not paying attention. The key, as I mention above, is to think about the recipient and come up with something unique, tasty and most importantly, something that they’ll use. For a while, I was on a real jam bender and would give several jars to my mom every year. And every year I’d come home at Christmas and see a few years worth of jars stacked in her cabinet. At first I was annoyed – I slaved over that jam! – but after I thought about it, I understood that it wasn’t a realistic expectation that a single woman could consume 12 jars of jam in a year. Adjust your expectations.
Every year, I make Christmas Cookies for gifts. Ridiculous cookies. Thousands of tiny, time consuming cookies. It’s a major project and every year, I sag a little at the start. It’s tiring but if I mention I might skip it, the look on peoples faces – understanding, disappointment, a touch of panic – inspire me to move forward. I realize that this is my unique thing. It shows that I care – that’s a special gift in itself and what this is really all about. Honestly, my friends do a little happy dance when I drop them off. How can I miss that? Many on “the list” are well known, accomplished pastry chefs. If I can get them excited about cookies, something they make every single day, then I know I’m onto something special.
Homemade baked goods are great, especially a coffeecake if your host has a lot of guests, because it is thoughtful. But keep in mind, baked goods need to be eaten fairly soon. With the bombardment of excess we face during the holidays, consider whether that may be a bit of a burden. What about something a little more shelf stable? Something that can be pulled from the cupboard or fridge throughout the year? The gift that keeps on giving might go over better than a cake that needs to be eaten within two days.
So this year, take an afternoon and make a thing or two for those people in your life – a teacher, a co-worker, your postal carrier – who might appreciate a little extra treat. Here are some ideas to get your started:
Homemade Crackers: I do this one a lot. A homemade cheese cracker is something special. You can gift a tin of baked crackers but what about giving rolls of unbaked dough and baking instructions? The recipient can stash them away and bake as desired for themselves or for any holiday entertaining emergencies that may arise. And arise, they do. Both my Black Pepper Parmesan Crackers and Cheese Straws will work beautifully.
Homemade vanilla: I did this with a stack of old, hard vanilla beans I had lying around (I know, first world problems.) It couldn’t be easier; finding the right jar was probably the hardest part. You take a bunch of vanilla beans, stuff them in a jar and top with some sort of booze – vodka, whiskey, bourbon. I used bourbon because I like it. A lot. Then you seal the jar and let it sit. The Travelers Lunchbox gives some tips here.
Vanilla Sugar: Give this to the baker in your life. I’ll be honest – they’re probably the only person who will fully appreciate it. It’s great for all those hard, dried vanilla bean pods you’ve exhausted for your pastry creams and such and just can’t throw away. Toss them in the food processor with some sugar and viola! It’s that easy. In fact, make some for yourself – your sugar cookies will never be the same. The folks at America’s Test Kitchen will show you how here. Don’t forget you can use other herbs and flavorings as well – lavender, rosemary, citrus zest. Make a trio!
Smoked Salt: Fancy salt is all the rage – sea salt, pink salt, black salt, salt blends. It’s everywhere! So why not make some smoked salt? If you have a grill, it couldn’t be easier. I’ve even done this in one of those stove top smokers with no problem. It’s a great finishing salt, adding an amazing burst of flavor. Even a simple ear of corn will be completely transformed. America’s Test Kitchen will how you how here.
Herb Salts: In the same vein, why not whip up a custom herb salt blend? Chop up some fresh herbs, add some garlic and whirl it all together. It smells amazing and is a great thing to have on hand – it’ll go on everything. Start with this recipe for Tuscan Salt from The Splendid Table podcasts.
Chai Tea Mix: Have a tea fan on your hands? Why not a homemade, home-blended chai mix? Buy the spices in bulks, stir them together in bowl and there you go. Buy the spices in an Indian or Hispanic market and it’s a really cheap but very thoughtful gift. The tin you select will probably cost more than the ingredients. Be sure to include a cute tag with brewing instructions so they know what to do with it. Check out TheKitchn for a simple recipe here.
Homemade Mustard: Everyone likes mustard so why not make your own? It’ll be 100 times better than any Poupon or god forbid, French’s. Couldn’t be easier – soak some mustard seeds for a day then whip them up in a blender. Bingo. My recipe here for Sweet & Spicy Beer Mustard will get you started. Suggestion: make a big batch and keep some for yourself!
Spice rubs: Have you priced those fancy spice rubs in the upscale gourmet shops? Ouch. Why not make a custom blend for someone you love? It’s as easy as buying spices in bulk (again, check out ethnic markets for the best prices), stir them up in a bowl and package. Easy easy. I’ve made these before as gifts that were very well received – make sure you provide some suggestions on what to do with them. Epicurious has a bunch (search “spice blends”) that I’ve been happy with. Try one – or more – of these: Moroccan Spice Blend (aka Ras-el-Hanout and great on everything), Tabil Spice Blend (bring a bit of Tunisia to everything from flatbread to grilled meats), Tandoori Spice Blend (for that Indian flair), Latin Spice Mix (great for pork), Yemeni Spice Rub (great on chicken). Or go for Emeril’s classic Essence Spice Blend – never fails to please and you can Bam! all you like.
Thai Sweet Chile Sauce: Who wouldn’t want a jar of this on the inside of the fridge door to jazz up a boring weeknight meal? She Simmers will show you how here.
Homemade Sriracha: I have yet to meet a person who doesn’t have that ubiquitous squeeze bottle with the Rooster inside their fridge door. Sriracha is a Thai chile paste that is great on everything. Really. There’s a whole cookbook on the subject in case you needed 50 recipes on what to do with the stuff. Did you know you can make your own? Me neither. My friend Chris makes this at his restaurant and it takes their Bloody Mary’s to a new level. Wow. So why not give a jar to your favorite chile head? Try the version from Food52 here.
Spicy Pecans: There’s something strangely addictive about a sweet and spicy cocktail nut. They will be gobbled up in no time and everyone appreciates a nice little jar of these babies. Vary the recipe any way you like – try a little more heat, a little more sweet, switch up the spices and/or herbs or change up the nuts. Try my recipe here for Spicy Pecans.
Homemade Granola – So easy and you can vary this infinite ways to whatever flavors, fruits and nuts you like. Keep in mind, it can get pricey based on what you put into it but a homemade granola is worlds apart from a store bought brand. One of these days I’m going to post about this because it’s amazing. Make this recipe from the NY Times and your perception of granola will be forever changed.
Chocolate Sauce: Give a big fat jar of homemade chocolate sauce and you’ll be rewarded with an enormous smile every time. Attach a spoon to the jar for easy access. For something different, make my recipe for Chocolate Cabernet Sauce. The wine accents the dark chocolate perfectly making a delicious, sophisticated treat. Just keep in mind it needs to be refrigerated and consumed within 1 month so make a note of that.
Limoncello: I have very fond memories of drinking A LOT of this along the Amalfi Coast of Italy one summer and a nice, cold shot brings me right back. It’s like an instant vacation. My sister made this one year for gifts and it was delicious. She packed it in small bottles with cute little labels and gave them away to various friends. Try this recipe from Epicurious but note it needs to sit and infuse for 80 days. Maybe next year? Or better yet – give the whole lemon peel filled jar! But along these lines, there are a bunch of flavored booze ideas out there. How about infused vodkas?
Need more ideas? Check out these lists from the ever helpful TheKitchn :
– 40 Homemade Gifts from TheKitchn here
– Beyond Jam: 10 Delicious Homemade Gifts from the Kitchn here
– TheKitchn’s 10 Best Sweet & Savory Treats here