Have I said that the winter-holiday season is among my favorite times of the year? It’s true: It’s amazing how much joy comes from seeing twinkling lights on a tree, from hearing Christmas carols sung by a passionate chorale, from feeling the warmth that emanates from a nearby menorah, from experiencing the wonder of what happened in a Bethlehem stable 2000-odd years ago. And of course there is the glow on children’s faces – there is nothing like the feeling that comes with the sight of a kid anticipating a visit from Santa or running through a field covered in wintry white or gorging himself on candy gelt.
Accompanying these magnificent joys is one proclaimed in an old adage: It’s better to give than to receive. Don’t get me wrong: I love getting presents as much as the next guy. (Again: I enjoy receiving them as much as the next guy.) But giving them – and seeing genuine appreciation on a recipient’s face – provides me with so much satisfaction that it’s as if I received the gift. That sense of satisfaction is magnified when the present is one I made with my own hands.
With that in mind, I offer this gift to you – a recommendation, a suggestion, a plea: Skip the malls and department stores. Give your loved ones the gift of yourself. Now, this is good for lots of reasons – ridding the season of commercialization, focusing on what matters rather than on material things, spending your own funds wisely – and can be done in lots of ways – charitable donations; volunteering; giving objets d’art, cards or articles of clothing you made to family and friends.
Of course, this is a food column. Happily, one of the best, least expensive, and most from-the-heart ways to demonstrate your love and friendship to others is by cooking or baking something wonderful for them. What better time to don the gay apparel – in this case, an apron – than in the pursuit of speading love, peace, and goodwill? Our family is anything but rich, so giving the gift of food is a yearly tradition for us. And while those who receive our home-baked goodies are thrilled with them (or so they tell me), we experience the joy of working and having fun together, tasting the treats, and receiving thanks and kudos. Fa-la-la-la-la, it’s the best feeling…
And yes, preparing the holiday meal counts too. Today, though, the focus is on edible gifts that can be wrapped and transported.
Cookies are among the best things to bake and give, but breads, cakes, jellies and preserves, relishes and chutneys, homemade sauces and condiments, and even fruit baskets that you arrange are great choices too. They tend to be simple to prepare, not too huge in size, easy to wrap – and they can be shared. What could be more perfect for the season of sharing?
We’ll get to recipes for baked goods and all momentarily. First, however, let’s deal with other gift ideas:
- Want to give a fruit or vegatable basket? Good for you – you’re giving the gift of health. This is super-easy: Hit a dollar store – yep, a dollar store, where you can find inexpensive baskets, foil wrapping paper and colored ribbons. Then head to a farmer’s market, where you’re sure to find the freshest seasonal varieties; once there, select the items you want to include. Once you have everything at home, clean the fruits and vegetables thoroughly (so your giftee can grab and eat without worry). Take your basket, line it with foil and festoon it with ribbon – use your creativity to make it pretty. Arrange your fruits and veggies in an eye-pleasing fashion. And voilà – you have a gift worthy of the gods.
- Does a loved one have one of those spice racks filled with nearly empty jars? Kidnap it – you may need to enlist some help to divert your giftee’s attention or just ‘fess up from the get-go – and refill the jars with herb and spice blends you can create. Fresh herbs and spices are available at any good grocery; go nuts and use your imagination. Make sure the jars are clean and dry, and feel free to decorate the jars with stick-on labels (available at dollar stores) and tie ribbons around the neck. Make ’em pretty.
- Making jars of jams or condiments? Decorate them by covering their lids with fabric (surely you can find remnants around the house) and/or by wrapping ribbon around the jars themselves. And be sure to label the jars (again, those stick-on labels are godsends) so that the giftee knows what is on the inside.
- Empty, large oatmeal containers or cookie/cake tins are wonderful receptacles for holiday cookies. Make them as magical as what will be inside them: Turn on your imagination and grab paints, glitter, construction paper, ribbon or whatever you have on hand to turn them into a visual treat that would melt Ebenezer Scrooge’s cold heart.
Now, for the recipes. The ones I am sharing are the very things I will give to loved ones this holiday season. Consider them a gift to you – I don’t share these with just anybody, you know.
Snickerdoodles are the number-one holiday cookie in our home and with those who receive them. They rock with milk – Santa loves ’em, just ask my son – or with coffee, tea, juice or nogs. If you’ve never tried them, give them a whirl; they are easy to make and share. Best of all, almost anyone can eat ’em. I usually make mine with butter, but the yummy vegan equivalent is included in the recipe.
Enjoy the recipe!
2 cups flour
2 tsps. cream of tartar
1 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. salt
1 cup softened unsalted butter
(1 cup canola oil and 2 tbsp. liquid lecithin can sub for butter to make a vegan snick)
1-3/4 cups sugar
2 large eggs (exclude for vegan cookies)
2 tbsp. cinnamon
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit (approx. 177 degrees Celsius).
Place the first four ingredients into a sifter and — naturally — sift them together into a bowl. In another bowl, beat the butter (or oil and lecithin) and 1-1/2 cups of the sugar with an electric mixer until the mixture is light and fluffy. Add the eggs and continue beating until the whole has a smooth texture (omit this step if making vegan cookies).
Gradually beat the flour mixture into the butter/egg/sugar combo until a smooth dough appears.
Now, the fun part: Pinch off pieces of the dough and roll them between your palms into tiny balls about an inch or a little more in diameter. Place the balls onto a plate or wax paper. Now, wash your hands!
In a tiny bowl — a ramekin is ideal — mix the remaining sugar with the cinnamon. One at a time, roll the balls in the sugar-cinnamon mixture. Place the balls about two inches apart on canola-oiled cookie sheets. This is important: Bake one pan at a time near the top of the oven for 8 to 11 minutes. Keep a watch on them so they don’t become too brown — you want the cookies to be a light golden brown around the edges.
Once done, after allowing them to settle outside of the overn for about a minute, transfer the cookies to wire racks and allow them to cool.
You’ll end up with about three dozen snickerdoodles. They shouldn’t last long.
3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsps. baking soda
2 tsps. salt
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. ground nutmeg
1 tsp. ground allspice
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. ground cloves
3 cups white sugar
1 cup canola oil
4 eggs, beaten
2 cups solid pack pumpkin puree
2/3 cup water
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit (approx. 177 degrees Celsius). Grease two large loaf pans (I use canola-oil spray).
Combine the flour, baking soda, salt, baking powder, nutmeg, allspice, cinnamon and cloves in a mixing bowl.
In a separate bowl, mix the sugar, oil and eggs until well-blended. Then stir in the pumpkin. Next, we combine it all: Slowly blend the contents of the dry-ingredient bowl into pumpkin mixture. Every now and again, pour a little of the water into the pumpkin-flour batter – the idea is to keep the consistency, well, consistent. When the task is completed, pour half of the batter into each of the pre-oiled loaf pans.
Oven time: Bake the breads for 90 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center of each bread comes out cleanly. Let sit for 10 minutes before removing the breads from the pans, then put the pan-free goodies on a baker’s rack to cool. Makes two hearty holiday loaves.
Cinnamony Apple Butter
I’m sorry, it just isn’t the holidays without the aroma of apples and cinnamon wafting through my home. This marvelous butter, prepared in a crock pot or slow cooker, is amazing with warm bread, on pancakes or latkes, and as a dipping sauce for fresh, chunked fruits. Packaged in a half-pint jar, it makes a gorgeous, tasty gift. Be sure to make plenty to keep at home!
4 lbs apples, peeled and cored
(2 lbs Granny Smith and 2 lbs McIntosh works well)
2 cups unsweetened apple juice or cider
2 cups sugar
2 tsps. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. ground cloves
1/2 tsp. allspice
1/4 tsp. nutmeg
5 half-pint dome-lid jars, sterilized
The ingredient list notes that the apples should be peeled and cored. In full, that means: Wash them, peel and core them, then chop the apples into large chunks.
Place the apples into a large pot with the apple juice. Bring the pot to a rolling boil, then reduce heat to medium-low and simmer for about 30 minutes, or until the apples are soft.
Take the apples and juice and strain them through a food mill or sieve; do this step twice if you like a really smooth butter. Once strained to your liking, place the strained material into a crock pot/slow cooker. Stir in the sugar and spices until the mixture is well-blended.
Place the lid on the crock pot/slow cooker and cook on low heat for 12-14 hours. (During the last hour, sterilize the jars and keep ’em hot.)
When butter is thickened and looks shiny, take a small spoonful of the butter and place it onto a chilled plate. Tilt the plate a tiny bit – if liquid doesn’t run down the plate, the butter is ready. (If it does, continue cooking and testing until it maintains its consistency.)
Ladle butter into sterile and hot half-pint jars. Clean any spillage around the jars’ rims with a damp cloth, place the dome lids and screw on the bands tightly. Place jars in a pot filled with water heated to just under boiling (about 200 degrees Fahrenheit/ degrees Celsius) for 10 minutes. Remove jars and allow to cool.
Once cool and dry, the easiest way to make the jars festive is to tie a thin holiday-colored ribbon around the lid. Makes five 1/2-pint jars – and five grateful giftees.
Next columns: More cookie recipes and vegetarian recipes for the holidays. Have a holly jolly!