When you give someone a gift you made yourself, they know you put your heart into it. And when your gift is edible, you don’t have to worry whether it matches their décor, or if they have room to store it. You don’t have to find out what size they wear, what their favorite color is or whether they already have one just like it. You know it won’t gather dust, and unless we’re talking fruit cake, chances are good they won’t try to give it back to you next year.
A tall stack of your signature recipe cookies or Brandi Henderson’s insane Spiced Nuts with Candied Bacon (recipe follows) in a clear cellophane bag (available at Paper Source in two sizes in packs of 20 for $6 to $7) tied with a festive ribbon is sure to be a hit. And you can take your gift-giving to a new level by attaching a couple of cookie cutters to the ribbon with the cookies (Bed Bath & Beyond sells tubs of 30 Wilton Holiday Cookie Cutters for $15), or including Brandi’s recipe with the nuts.
If you’re looking for cookie ideas, shortbread keeps well, and you can make the dough in advance. Just shape it into logs and store well wrapped in the freezer until you’re ready to slice and bake. The Grand Central Baking Book ($30) has a number of shortbread recipes, including the festive Pistachio Cranberry, and my favorite, Cocoa Nib. They’re quick and easy to make, and because the dough keeps so well, you can make a generous selection for friends and neighbors, and not get overwhelmed by the work.
Mini loaf cakes also make sweet gifts. Fold fresh cranberries into your favorite pound cake or pumpkin bread, or chocolate chips into banana bread, to make them extra special.
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For the cooks on your list, PCC sells bulk salts including Sel Gris, Australian Pink Flake and both Hawaiian black lava and red sea salts. You can fill cute jars and give them singly or bundled. Storables has a nice selection of canning jars and airtight flip-top jars in varying sizes that range from $2 to $3 for an 8-ounce jar.
And now that you’ve got the jars, think about mixing up a batch of your favorite grilling, roasting, or mulling spices to give away. Or make vanilla sugar — an easy-to-make gift for the bakers you know, or for anyone who takes sugar in their tea or coffee. Use 2 cups of sugar for every vanilla bean (available at Big John’s PFI for $12 an ounce, which usually gets you 6 or 7 beans). Cut the beans in half, and then cut each again lengthwise, leaving the narrow end intact. Use the dull side of a paring knife to scrape out the vanilla seeds, and use your fingers to rub them into the sugar. Put two of the halved, scraped beans into a 16-ounce jar and fill with the vanilla sugar. If you can, assemble these 2 weeks before you give them to allow the flavor of the vanilla time to permeate the sugar.
I have a stack of Libbey glass bowls (get eight 6.5 ounce bowls with lids for $12 on Amazon) that I use so often I think everyone should have some. So I give them away in pairs or stacked even higher, filled with things like lemon curd or Molly Wizenberg’s Cranberry Chutney with Crystallized Ginger and Dried Cherries (recipe at www.orangette.blogspot.com). I like knowing they’ll still be useful even when they’re empty.
Spiced Nuts with Candied Bacon
This recipe comes from Brandi Henderson at The Pantry at Delancey. She developed it for Delancey, to serve with drinks. She suggests using almonds, cashews, pistachios and pecans, but says that you can use any raw nuts you want, “Except the pecans are a must. They have a density that fits this kind of candying like peanut butter to jelly. I usually throw in some extra of those, to make up for the ones I end up snacking on.” You can make these vegetarian by leaving out the bacon.
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
3 ½ cups sugar
3 cups water
4 cups raw nuts
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons garam masala
1 teaspoon cumin
⅛ teaspoon cinnamon
⅛ teaspoon allspice
1 ½ teaspoon cayenne
12 ounces sliced bacon
1 ½ cups brown sugar
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Coat a baking sheet with the vegetable oil and set aside.
Combine the sugar and water in a large pot and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium high and add the nuts, salt and spices. Bring up to a simmer and cook for 8 minutes.
With a slotted spoon, remove the nuts from the pot, shaking off excess liquid. Spread onto the oiled baking sheet. Reserve the liquid for future batches of nuts.
Roast the nuts in the oven until browned, about 15 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool completely.
Reduce the oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with a silicone mat. Sprinkle half the brown sugar onto the mat. Place the bacon onto the brown sugar and sprinkle with the remaining brown sugar. Roast for about 25 minutes, turning the bacon 3 to 4 times, every 7 to 8 minutes. The bacon should look caramelized. Remove the pan from the oven and use tongs to move the bacon onto a clean tray. Let it cool completely.
Chop the bacon and toss with the nuts. Add salt to taste if necessary.
Leora Y. Bloom is the author of “Washington Food Artisans: Farm Stories and Chef Recipes.”