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.