Thursday, December 4, 2008

Do more with less: Homemade treats for the holidays

I've been making gift baskets full of goodies for friends and family members for years now. It takes a bit of planning, but the time and energy are worth it (and it allows me to stretch my budget a bit farther -- something we're all going to be doing more of, given the current state of the economy!)

This week's Do More With Less post at The 36-Hour Day offers up 10 ideas for delicious homemade treats. And not one of them involves bean soup in a jar.

Here's what I put in my baskets this year:

1.) Nut brittles. Peanut brittle is a well-known favorite; use macadamia nuts for a more decadent candy. This recipe from the Food Network is easy and fast (if you don't have a silicone baking mat, generously butter a rimmed baking sheet and warm it in the oven before pouring on the hot candy); make it even more of a treat by drizzling the pieces with melted white chocolate.

2.) Treats dipped in chocolate. Pretzels are a favorite, and if you use long pretzel rods then the kids can help you dip. (Is your household gluten-free? Glutino pretzels work well in this, too -- lay them on a baking sheet and drizzle away.) But don't limit yourself to pretzels. Dried apricots are delicious when dipped into dark chocolate, and regular old marshmallows become something else entirely when you coat them in milk chocolate.

3.) Limoncello. This one took a bit of planning, so if you'd like to give pretty bottles of sunshine-colored lemon liqueur as gifts this year, start now. All you need to do is shave the peel from several lemons and steep them in vodka for about two weeks; add simple syrup and pour into bottles. That's it. I have a few batches hanging out in a dark cupboard right now.

4.) Cookies or biscotti. The trick here is to make one type of dough and use it several different ways -- hey, if we can multitask, so can our baked goods. Country Home magazine has a great sugar cookie recipe that you can use to make five different types of cookies (or, of course, you can just sprinkle a single batch with five different types of colored sugar and call it a night).

5.) Jam. I started making jam because I hated to see blackberries rotting on the vines around our then-new home; now, I make jam because if I don't, my family says, "Hey, where's the jam?" It's probably the most time-consuming item in this post, but it's pretty easy (and, if you don't have blackberry canes running riot near you, you can always use frozen berries from the supermarket). This recipe from Alton Brown is awesome, but you can follow the directions inside a box of pectin with good results, too.

6.) Spiced nuts. Here's an excellent recipe for rosemary pecans from the folks at Wondertime magazine: Heat the oven to 350 degrees, place about 1 pound of unsalted pecan halves on a cookie sheet and toast them, stirring every so often, for about 10 minutes. In a large bowl, combine 2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary, 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper, 2 teaspoons brown sugar, 2 teaspoons kosher salt, and 1 tablespoon melted butter; add the toasted nuts, and toss to coat. Package the nuts in 1-cup portions. Then go and make another batch, because you'll have already eaten most of this one.

7.) Spice blends. Make your own garahm masala or rib rub or Cajun blackening spice or herbs de Provence or... you get the idea. It's easy, it's delicious, and it'll definitely be appreciated.

8.) Drink mixes. When I was about 10, my mom showed me how to make my own "Swiss Mocha" mix, a la those International Coffees that were so popular in the late '70s and early '80s (did I just date myself here? I think I just dated myself. Moving on...). This Mocha au Lait mix has just four ingredients -- dry milk, semi-sweet chocolate chips, brown sugar, and instant coffee -- and I'm going to whip up a batch for old time's sake. Also: Shannon from Rocks In My Dryer offered up a couple of great homemade drink mixes in a recent guest post at Ordering Disorder... check them out.

9.) Baking mixes. My youngest brother is crazy for old-fashioned oatmeal raisin cookies, so last year I packaged up all the dry ingredients, attached a tag describing what else he needed to add and how to put it all together, and he happily baked them up at all hours of the day and night. This year, my neices and godchildren are getting "chef kits" with several homemade mixes for chocolate chip cookies, raisin scones, and brownies. Don't feel like coming up with your own recipes? You can cheat and pour grocery-store mixes into holiday bags... no one will know.

10.) Trail mix and Muddy Buddies. Combine your favorite fruits and nuts to make your own trail mix, or toss Chex cereal with peanut butter, chocolate, and powdered sugar and make a batch of Muddy Buddies for your coworkers.

Do you make homemade treats for the holidays? I'm always on the lookout for new ideas... share yours in the comments!


Anonymous said...

Sounds like a great collection of items to include in a gift basket, you could also include some sort of pet treat for the pet lovers. It would make a wonderful holiday pet gift basket that both owner and pet could enjoy.

LMAlphonse said...

Thanks for the tip, Daysi!