I love the idea of homemade holiday gifts. They speak from the heart and represent the intentions and the labor of the giver more directly than anything purchased. I learned years ago that I couldn't compete with friends, relatives, and neighbors in creating "crafty" gifts. I can't knit like my college roommate, Kelly, except to construct shapeless, single-color, one-size-fits-Godzilla scarves. I can't sew or do needlepoint like my Aunt Lura, and I don't have the patience to create the colorful quilts of my 80-something neighbor, Ethel.
What I can do—and love to do—is cook.
As December rolls along, therefore, I haul out my cookie cutters and baking sheets, pie pans, and candy thermometer, and set to work. I don’t go in for elaborate packaging or presentation, although I am not averse to lavish use of ribbon, aluminum foil, or colored plastic wrap. In general, I let the flavor of my gifts speak for itself.
Over the years, friends and relatives have come to expect and appreciate my holiday offerings of food. One year, trying to do something different, I purchased decorative glassware for my Uncle Bruce and Aunt Connie. They managed to sound grateful, but they also hinted strongly that the following Christmas they would much rather have the usual candy.
In addition to taking care of gift niches that otherwise would be hard to fill, edible gifts are infinitely renewable; I can give them year after year without fear of repetition. Best of all, the gift-making experience gives me an opportunity to spend time in the kitchen with two of my favorite people: my mother, Jan, and my sister-in-law, Leigh. We get together for holiday food preparation, cutting down on the work and increasing the fun. We end up with holiday gifts each of us can offer to anyone from spouses to mail carriers—and with baked goods to take to the parties that spring up at this time of year.
As we measure, sift, and stir the ingredients that will become our presents to others, we also receive a present ourselves. Quietly—well, perhaps not quietly because we’re all talkers; let’s say imperceptibly—we find that the bonds between us strengthen as we share the work and fun of planning and creating our gifts.
Our first session each year revolves around fruitcake. I know it’s unfashionable, but it’s popular among my friends and family members; my brother and sister-in-law’s wedding cake was a fruitcake, much to the consternation of the anti-fruitcake contingent at the reception.
As Christmas and Chanukah approach, we move on to cookies, cakes, pies, and candy. We’ve even been known to create savory jellies and cordials. For non-sugar eaters, we roast nuts or bake festive breads.
The non-stop oven warms the house and our spirits, and friends drop in for a cup of coffee and a nibble. This year’s holiday baking sessions are being enlivened by the presence of my mother’s first grandchild, my brother and sister-in-law’s baby, Michael. He has no idea what’s going on, but he loves being propped up on the table, sharing center stage with the food while we work, talk, and sing holiday songs.
In the spirit of holiday giving, here I offer a few of our favorite recipes.
Mock Cherry Pie
No holiday feast is complete without a pie or two. This recipe comes from my maternal grandmother. We still do a lot of our holiday preparations on her substantial kitchen table. I love to make it and think of her.
- 2 8-inch pie crusts
- 2 cups cranberries, cut in half
- 1 cup raisins
- 1-1/2 cups sugar
- 1/2 cup water
- 1 tablespoon flour
- 1 pinch salt
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Combine all the filling ingredients in a bowl, and allow them to sit for a few minutes. Line your pie pan with the first crust, and fill it with the cranberry mixture. Cover the pan with the other crust, and prick holes in the top to allow steam to escape. For a more decorative pie, shape the top crust into a lattice—or instead of pricking holes, use a cookie cutter to make a holiday silhouette in the crust. Bake for 10 minutes, then reduce the heat to 350 degrees and bake for another 35 to 45 minutes. Serves 6 to 8.
Festive Chocolate Bark
We always make holiday candy, and this recipe from my neighbor, chef Phil Keenan, is both easy and decorative. If you don’t have access to double boilers, just mix white and milk chocolate; the effect still will be colorful. The key is to use quality chocolate.
- 1/2 to 1 cup blanched almonds (to taste)
- butter as needed
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 to 1 cup dried cranberries (to taste)
- 1/3 pound milk chocolate
- 1/3 pound dark chocolate
- 1/3 pound white chocolate
Butter a cookie sheet, then place the almonds on it and toast in a 350-degree oven for 8 minutes. Toss the almonds around on the sheet, sprinkle the salt on them, and toast for an additional 2 minutes. Remove them from the oven, and put them on a paper towel to drain and cool. When they are cool, sprinkle them on a cookie sheet covered with parchment paper. Sprinkle the cranberries on as well.
In each of three separate double-boiler pans (or their equivalent), boil an inch or two of water. While the water is coming to a boil, separately chop the milk, dark, and white chocolate into uniform pieces. Place each chocolate in a pan on the top of one double boiler, turn off the heat below the boiled water, and stir the chocolates as they melt.
When the chocolates have melted, place alternating teaspoonfuls of each on top of the cranberries and almonds. Swirl or splatter them together to make a pattern. Set the chocolate aside to cool and harden. (Do not refrigerate it.) This is best when eaten within 48 hours. Makes 16 large or 32 small pieces of bark.
Marge’s Star Sugar Cookies
Cookies to decorate at Christmas are a must. My friend Marjorie Appleton gave me this recipe for sugar cookies a few years back, and we’ve been using it ever since. The cookies themselves aren’t too sweet, giving us an excuse to slather icing and sprinkles all over them. This recipe can be doubled.
- 3/4 cup butter (1-1/2 sticks)
- 3/4 cup sugar
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 1 egg
- 4 teaspoons milk
- 2 cups flour
- 1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
Cream together the butter, sugar, and vanilla. Add the egg and milk, and beat until light and fluffy. Blend the dry ingredients and stir them into the creamed mixture. Divide the dough into manageable pieces (2 or 3; it depends on how comfortable you are rolling out dough). Cover the dough, and chill it for at least one hour.
On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough to a thickness of 1/8 inch. Cut into shapes and bake on an ungreased cookie sheet at 375 degrees for 5 to 8 minutes, or until the cookies begin to turn golden around the edges. Makes about 3 dozen cookies.