As Christmas draws closer, time runs out for making many edible and non-edible gifts. Traditional soap takes weeks to mature, sloe gin needs ages to infuse, and so on. Being practical, I’m only covering things that are fairly quick to make here, starting with edible gifts. Non-edibles later, if there’s time…
Packaging really matters, adding the finishing touch. I make my own boxes for sweets and cakes by breaking down cereal boxes and cutting out simple template shapes. Then all they need is a few staples in the right places, some glue and a quick covering with nice wrapping paper, fabric scraps or wallpaper. Line them with baking parchment and top them with a bow or any other decoration you like.
While it’s often cheapest to save up old jam jars and trawl charity shops for china cups, bowls, plates, or glass receptacles, it could take too long at this stage. You might need to try your nearest hardware, kitchenware or craft shop for bulk buys of other containers, such as kilner jars. They may also stock cellophane, which is ideal for packaging most sweets and biscuits or covering small baskets or hampers. Your local pound shop might also be worth a look for ramekins, small baskets or airtight containers.
Here are a few recipes for sweets, biscuits, cakes, savouries and alcoholic gifts. They’re pretty easy to make, and mostly don’t need any more equipment than a fancy cutter.
Peppermint creams. Dead easy. Vary the flavour by leaving out the peppermint and replacing with a couple of drops of almond essence, or a dash of distilled rosewater etc. Leave to dry at least overnight, or a little longer if you want to dip them in chocolate. Vary the appearance with food colouring, fancy cutters or edible decorations.
Marzipan fruits, animals or other shapes. Buy ready-made marzipan from a discount supermarket, or on offer from a premium supermarket. You can also use marzipan to stuff pitted dried dates. Look out for small petit fours cases to make presentation easier.
Chocolate truffles. I prefer the ones that have a bit of booze in them, but you can also hunt around for alcohol-free recipes. These need to be eaten within 3 days or frozen.
Chocolate mendiants. Very easy, attractive and delicious. Don’t use cheap cooking chocolate as it will really show.
Rum and raisin fudge. Boiling sugar alert, please be careful if you aren’t used to handling it. Cut into big chunks once cooled.
Nut brittle. Another boiling sugar alert. I think it’s best with a tiny pinch of salt added to the mixture. Ideally stored in an airtight container once cooled.
Biscuits and cakes
Shortbread. The less you handle the shortbread mix, the better. Make it look giftworthy by using pretty cutters and making marks round the edges with a flat fork, or by making one big square or a round (cut around a small plate) and scoring break lines a couple of millimetres into the surface with a sharp knife.
Gingerbread biscuits, gingerbread houses, gingerbread loaf. The biscuits look especially nice with a little fine white icing for decoration.
Brandy snaps. If you don’t want to roll them into the traditional tube shape, make them slightly smaller and leave them as lacy-looking rounds. Store between layers of baking parchment in an airtight box. Perfect with a scoop of ice cream or sorbet.
Jewel biscuits. Have finally tracked down a new version of this pretty recipe, after losing my original one. It helps to smash up the boiled sweets a bit first with the back of a wooden spoon, so they melt faster in the oven.
Dundee cake. Looks good and keeps well, and there’s no need to spend time on icing.
Other sweet treats
Honey roasted nuts/peanuts.
Caramelised almonds. Great with after-dinner coffee.
Brandy butter. You can vary the recipe by using rum. Give away in a ramekin or other small pot. Freezes well.
Many of these gifts are best stored in sterilised jam jars or bottles. The easiest way to sterilise glass is to heat it for 10 minutes in a hot oven, then allow it to cool before filling.
Infused olive oils. If you’re making several, buy a drum of olive oil at a Mediterranean grocers or supermarket to save money. Anything fresh (lemon peel, basil etc) you add to the oil for flavour needs to be completely strained out before you give the gift away, or it will go off. You can add fully dried ingredients and leave them in for decorative effect as well as flavour: rosemary, peppercorns, bay leaves, thyme, mini red chillies and oregano all work well.
Stir-fry oil. Mix sunflower oil, a 2cm x 2cm chunk of root ginger, a peeled garlic clove, and a tablespoon of freshly-toasted sesame seeds. Cap tightly, leave for two days, then strain and bottle. Variation: add a stick of lemongrass and a whole green birdseye chilli to the mix before infusing.
Marinated feta or goat’s cheese. Keeps up to 1 month in the fridge, so long as the surface stays covered with olive oil.
Marinated olives. I love them, whether they’re green olives with thyme and lemon, or black olives with garlic and red chilli flakes. Present them packed into a pretty jar, with enough olive oil to make sure all of the other ingredients are covered, then they’ll keep for weeks. That’s if I don’t invite myself around and eat them all first.
Grissini. Elegant or rustic bread sticks go down well as a gift for dinner or drinks party hosts.
Parmesan crisps. Place teaspoons of finely-grated parmesan cheese, widely spaced, onto a non-stick baking sheet. Place under a hot grill for a few seconds until melted and bubbling. Allow to cool slightly, then remove with a thin metal spatula or palette knife and allow to cool fully on a wire rack. Vary the recipe by mixing in coarsely-ground black pepper or a sprinkle of dried herbs. Ideal cocktail nibble.
Cheese straws, fromage fort cheese dip and spicy nuts. Great party gift recipes recently featured on The Lean Times.
Bloody mary vodka infusion. I’d suggest omitting the chilli pepper and adding a stick of celery, a pinch of caraway or coriander seeds, and a small bay leaf to the recipe, and you can use any brand of vodka you like. Add a label with a full bloody mary recipe on it. Can also be drunk neat from a tiny glass to accompany starters and appetisers. Keeps for months in the freezer.
Citrus vodka. Ready in 2 or 3 days. Don’t leave the peel in for too long.
Vanilla vodka. Ready in 2 or 3 days also. Leave a pod in if it’s going to be given as a gift.
‘Shamaretto’. Homemade almond liqueur, similar in flavour to Amaretto, which is actually made from apricot kernels. Use only almond extract, and not almond flavouring, or you’ll end up with an oil slick on top of the drink that needs filtering off.
Coffee liqueur. An American recipe, but easy to adapt. I like to leave out about 1/3 of the vodka, and replace it with brandy for the best flavour. Whatever you do, don’t use the similar recipes that ask for instant coffee, it’s nowhere near as nice.
Chocolate rum. I know you can make novelty chocolate vodka, but it’s so much nicer if you make it with light or golden rum and decent quality milk chocolate instead. Keeps for months in the freezer, and makes a perfect after-dinner tipple or the ideal base for an indulgent chocolate martini (just shake with equal parts single cream and light crème de cacao, and add a sprinkle of nutmeg or chocolate shavings).
Do you have any quick and easy homemade food or drink favourites of your own? Please share.