By Amy Scattergood
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
December 10, 2008
Not only are homemade gifts less expensive, they also capture the spirit of holiday giving in a way that purchased gifts simply can't. And if you consider the ubiquitous traffic and holiday crowds, a leisurely morning spent baking breadsticks or whipping up a batch of homemade marshmallows seems positively Zen-like by comparison.
Gifts you make yourself can triangulate personal taste with both economy and invention. Make a stack of shortbread cookies spiced with your neighbor's favorite lavender, then tie them up in cellophane the color of her kitchen. Or wrap up a tin of brownies in the sports page for a friend who's a rabid Lakers fan (maybe the standings -- an idea you might need to finesse if your friend is a Clippers fan).
Use antique bottles found at flea markets (sterilize them first) to show off a rich caramel sauce spiked with Cognac or a batch of vinegar you've infused with thyme and peppercorns. Just tie the tops with velvet ribbon and thread on greeting cards and you have terrific gifts, at once pretty and practical.
These are just a few of many possible ideas. If you have more than 50 people on your list, riff on some of these, invent your own -- or e-mail your Facebook friends pictures of gifts instead.
1 Make a batch of grissini grissini (homemade breadsticks), flavored with rosemary or black pepper, wrapped in parchment paper and tied with a bow.
2 Cut out cinnamon marshmallow stars with cookie cutters, then pack them, dusted with powdered sugar, into a tin.
3 Pack a batch of cookbook author Paula Wolfert's prunes in Armagnac into a Mason jar. (Awesome over vanilla ice cream or crepes.) They'll be ready to eat in two weeks: You can include that on the "don't-open-until-Christmas" card.
4 Make a batch of caramel sauce and pour it into a sterilized old vinegar jar or an antique bottle from a flea market.
5 Stack a dozen shortbread cookies, flavored with lavender or a spice of your choice, wrap in tissue paper and tie with a ribbon.
6 Make a batch of fudge with 70% cacao and stack the pieces in a tin lined with parchment paper. Wrap the tin with a page of newspaper that showcases the recipient's hobby or political bent.
7 Pick up some Thai or Fresno chiles from a farmers market and preserve them in a bottle submerged in white wine vinegar with a clove of garlic and a few sprigs of thyme.
8 Use other spices to infuse vinegar (see No. 7), such as rosemary, lemon peel, fresh bay leaves or Sichuan peppercorns.
9 Candy the peels of six or seven lemons, dust with sugar and tie them in a little transparent cellophane bag.
10 See No. 9, but instead use orange peels and dip the tops in melted bittersweet chocolate.
11 Heat a few cups of olive oil with basil, parsley or lemon peel to infuse the oil, then strain it into a bottle and tie with a ribbon.
12 Make a batch of fresh pasta, maybe flavored with finely minced herbs or ground pepper, dry it overnight, then wrap it in a paper bag or store it in a glass jar.
13 Mix up a batch of waffle or pancake mix, adding some dried apples and spices. Put the dry ingredients in a little bag, then add a jar of maple syrup and a note with instructions for the rest of the recipe (buttermilk, eggs).
14 Do the same as No. 13, only for crepe batter. Enclose the recipe and add a large jar of Nutella.
15 Make a spice rub, using your favorite chiles and spices, and include a handwritten recipe for carne asadacarne asada or kebabs.
16 Make a batch of vanilla bean sugar cookie dough, wrap tightly and freeze; give it to a friend in a pretty bag with directions for how to bake and a few cookie cutters you've found at a kitchen store or a flea market.
17 After you've finished No. 16, save the scraped vanilla beans. Grind up the beans in a spice or coffee grinder, then mix with a cup of white sugar. Grind in some lavender too, if you like it. Pour the vanilla sugar into a little jar and seal.
18 Make a batch of pecan or walnut brittle, dust with sea salt and break into pieces; put the brittle into a cellophane bag.
19 Flavor a half-cup of fine sea salt with lime zest, cumin, saffron or other spices or flavorings and pour into a glass jar.
20 Make a batch of chocolate sauce (use 70% cacao, and add water if it will be stored for more than a few days; use milk or cream if used immediately), and pour the sauce into a glass jar. Include a handwritten recipe for chocolate soup or homemade vanilla ice cream.
21 Make a batch of chocolate sable cookies. Put them into a bag with a few home-cut stencils (trees, snowflakes), a little jar of powdered sugar and a tiny sieve.
22 For a friend who loves baking pies, fill a straw hat with seasonal apples from the farmers market (the number of apples that could fit in a hat was used by some farmers as an indicator of how many you'd need for one large pie) and tie up with a big ribbon.
23 Fill a paper bag with freshly baked madeleines; include a tea cup, maybe found at an antique or thrift store, or a tin of your favorite tea.
24 For friends who like decorating for the holidays, tie ribbons to a collection of interesting cookie cutters: They make great decorations when not being used for cookies or canapes. You can also include cookies -- to eat while decorating, or painted and made into keepsake ornaments.
25 Spice a selection of good olives (heat some chiles, garlic and lemon peel in olive oil, then add the mixture to a cup or so of good black or green olives), and seal in a jar.
26 Bake a batch of your favorite scones (oatmeal and currant, say), wrap them in parchment, and put them in a bag with a pound of whole-bean Ethiopian coffee.
27 For friends with kids, cut out a batch of brownies with moon or star or snowflake cookie cutters and dust with a bit of powdered sugar. Arrange in a tin.
28 Pickle baby carrots, tiny turnips or maybe pearl onions in a simple brine spiked with black peppercorns and spices, then pack the pickles into a glass jar tied with a bit of string.
29 Make a batch of harissa harissa (a Moroccan chile sauce), pour it into a jar with a layer of olive oil on top.
30 Make preserved lemons by salting the season's first Meyer lemons and packing them into a Mason jar, maybe with a few spices.
31 Toast a few cups of walnuts, pecans or almonds with a mixture of olive oil and spices, cool and fill a wax paper bag.
32 Decant some good vodka into a bottle and infuse with lemon peel, maybe a handful of Tellicherry peppercorns. Tie with a ribbon and a recipe for your favorite holiday cocktail.
33 Make chocolate truffles by rolling a simple ganache in cocoa powder, then fill an old-fashioned tin lined with wax paper.
34 Use the last of the season's berries (or frozen) and make a few batches of berry sauce. Fill plastic squeeze bottles and tie three, of varying colors, with a ribbon or piece of twine. Great for sauce decorating or for families with kids.
35 Make a batch of GlühweinGlühwein (hot spiced wine) and decant into a Mason jar or jug with a top. Tie with a ribbon, and attach reheating instructions for a caroling party. Include the lyrics to a favorite old holiday song.
36 Buy about a half-pound of multicolored fingerling potatoes from the farmers market and put them into a bag with a jar of homemade raita raita (yogurt-cucumber sauce) and instructions to roast the potatoes and serve with the sauce.
37 Try No. 36, but with harissa harissa (No. 29) instead of raita.
38 Assemble the makings for a winter soup from the farmers market: heirloom beans, baby fennel and carrots, a head of garlic, fresh herbs. If you want to give them a pot too, present the items inside. For friends who don't cook, make the soup and give it to them ready-made in the pot.
39 Bake a batch of spoon-shaped tuile cookies and dip the tops into melted chocolate. Fill a mug with the cookies and wrap with tissue paper.
40 Load a handled gift bag with a wedge of cheese from your favorite cheese store, an apple, a little jar of honey and a few of the spiced nuts from No. 31 or grissini grissini (No. 1).
41 Make a batch of jam from whatever fruit strikes your fancy at the market or still hangs on your tree. Fill a jar, then add a few scones (No. 26) or a mini loaf of quick corn bread.
42 Make a batch of grissini grissini (No. 1), but fold a quarter cup of grated Parmesan into the dough. Tie the Parmesan grissini with twine and give with a bottle of good red wine.
43 Stack a dozen chocolate chip cookies (made with chunks of Valrhona and a handful of oatmeal) into a tall, wide-mouth Mason jar. Tie with a ribbon, with instructions to serve with a glass of milk at bedtime.
44 For dog owners, bake a batch of dog biscuits (cut them out like bones), then stack into a paper bag and add a tennis ball.
45 Make a handful of pomanders by studding small oranges with whole cloves. Tie a thin red ribbon around each pomander, wrapping the ball in quarters and tying a loop at the top; great as sachets, table decorations and tree ornaments.
46 Slow-roast halved Roma tomatoes on a bed of salt; after the tomatoes have cooled, pack them in olive oil in a glass jar and give with a pound of good quality Italian bucatinibucatini. If this is for a special person, include some bottarga (pressed fish roe) and a copy of Nate Appleman's cookbook "A16," which has a fantastic recipe that uses all three ingredients.
47 Wrap a new muffin tin filled with muffins you've baked (try chocolate and raspberry) in parchment paper; tie the package with a ribbon or twine, the recipe threaded through it.
48 Decant two or three cocktail mixes (Bloody Mary, cranberry-lime, pisco sour) into sterilized bottles; write a simple cocktail recipe on the back of the bottle with a colored Sharpie and tie with a ribbon.
49 Mix a jar of your favorite incendiary barbecue sauce, tie with a ribbon and give with a trio of brushes or a new pair of tongs.
50 Use a new apron to wrap a loaf of cranberry-orange bread, a sachet of loose-leaf black tea laced with dried orange peel, a cinnamon stick, whole allspice and some star anise. Suggest a time to drop over for a spot of holiday tea.
Scattergood is a Times staff writer.
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