Often, it is the thought that counts. True, family holiday gifts often fulfill a specific need or a whispered wish, whether it’s a child’s hard-to-find toy, a teen’s must-have electronic device or even a new car for a deserving—and hopefully surprised—spouse. But when we plan our holiday gift-giving to friends, neighbors, colleagues or acquaintances, what we wrap up in the package can tell a lot about us: who we are, what we like, what we think it means to have this person as someone we value.
A book that we hold special or a beautiful gift of art can fill this requirement on a one-person basis, but perhaps nothing does the job better than a present of food or drink that we’ve made ourselves. It’s also a pleasant reminder that this is what holiday gifts were ages ago, something that we fashioned with our own hands.
And while many people love shopping—online, at the big box stores or at favorite neighborhood boutiques— there is an added attraction in making homemade gifts: You don’t have to leave your kitchen, pantry or cellar to get the job done.
But where do you start?
First, look at your culinary skills, what your interests are and what ingredients you have at hand. Then consider something that will easily let you make multiple gifts, rather than a bunch of one-offs. Finally, make a gift that has some shelf life. While entrée dishes or snazzy hors d’oeuvres are good for parties, during the busy holiday season no one wants to receive a gift that has to be consumed immediately.
Here are some possibilities to get you thinking:
The fruits (and vegetables) of your gardening. Cucumbers and green vegetables can be the basics of pickles—either plain or with exotic herbs—and all sorts of relishes. Fruits can produce jams, jellies and marmalades, and apples can render spicy apple butter. Both vegetables and fruits can be dried into cleverly packaged snacking chips.
Pastries and candies. Susan Teiser, owner of Centreville Café and Montrachet Catering, loves to bake her own gifts. “Sweet bread loaves—zucchini and coconut—are one of my favorites,” she says. “I like to tie them with a seasonal wired ribbon around them.”
Holiday cookies, decorated with bright icing designs, are perennial favorites, especially if they’re durable and not easily crumbled in transit. Trying to make an ideal fruit cake with nuts—one soaked in rum or some other brown spirit—is a challenge that many of us annually attempt. A friend of ours specializes in holiday pumpkin rolls. And candies offer limitless possibilities.
Meaty gifts. If you’re into butchery, at least at the beginner’s level, it’s fun to make your own pâtés, sausages and even the various kinds of salumi. If you want to go fancier, small terrines in inexpensive ceramic containers are one option. For something simpler, do flavored and spiced meat spreads or rilletes. Of course, there are also different kinds of vegetarian pâtés.
Clever nibbles. Lightly baked nuts seasoned with sugars and spices are always a popular favorite, as are “snowflake” designs of shredded parmesan or other hard cheese spread on a baking sheet. Often the best of these nibbles can be made when you take one basic ingredient, such as nuts or dried fruits, and “tart them up.”
Items for the pantry. I have a friend who uses leftover wine to make vinegars. Those made with white wine, especially, can be further enhanced by adding colorful branches of fresh herbs like basil, sage or rosemary to the bottle. Flavored sugars and savory infused salts are other easily created items for the larder, as are homemade pastas— especially those flavored with colorful herbs.
Sauces and succulents. Canned savory sauces such as tomato, cheese or pesto provide a good array of possible gifts, as do sweet sauces and compotes. “My new recipe is for a fruit-and-nut compote,” Teiser says. “It’s divine over baked brie, ice cream or any runny triple cheese.”
Special drinks. You don’t have to make your own beer or wine—although you’re way ahead if you do. Infusing gins or vodkas with special flavors and spices is easy to do, and you can always drink up your failures. Also, punches and spicy drinks that can be kept in the refrigerator and heated up later.
Your creativity doesn’t have to be limited to the gifts themselves. Choose clever gift containers and fanciful wrappings that reflect the season. Holly or evergreen boughs, a fresh flower or a bundle of cinnamon sticks all make a package brighter.
Then there’s Plan B: a gift produced by local food artisans that still adds somewhat of a personal note. Give a bottle or a case of wine from a Chester County winery. Wrap a block of locally made cheese in colorful paper. Or purchase a box or two of fancy truffles from a local chocolatier to have ready when needed.
Remember, a gift of food or drink you make is not only a personal statement to the recipient. It also gives you the gift of feeling—and being—creative.