TORONTO – Taking the time to make a simple edible gift, whether it’s a jar of flavourful chutney or luscious chocolates, and wrap it prettily is a special way to infuse a present with a personal touch that’s an alternative to that ubiquitous bottle of wine.
Besides being sure to impress, whether the recipients are neighbours, friends, party hosts, teachers or any of the slew of service providers on your holiday gift list, making unique treats can also be budget friendly.
“Not everyone loves to cook, but I think lots of people like the idea of making something special for Christmas or just taking around when you’re going to a dinner party or something,” says Alison Walker, author of Handmade Gifts from the Kitchen: More than 100 Culinary Inspired Presents to Make and Bake (Appetite by Random House, 2014).
“It’s really nice to take something handmade or make something with the children.”
She suggests the economic recession in Britain has given rise to the practice of homemade gifts. “I think people are thinking more about making things themselves, whether it’s knitting or sewing or cooking and that sort of nice little gift you can give instead of just going out and spending loads of money somewhere.”
A recent visit to a friend’s for drinks inspired her to whip up some chocolates, which the hostess and her kids loved. “I suppose it’s just the thought behind it, that you didn’t just go to the supermarket and buy a box of chocolates. You took the time,” Walker said from her home in Oxted, Surrey, about 55 kilometres south of London.
Walker has included recipes for various types of cookies, cupcakes and macarons along with decadent confections such as Turkish delight, sponge toffee, nougat, caramels, fudge, peanut brittle and truffles. Lest you think savoury concoctions have been given short shrift, there are mustards, chutneys, relish, barbecue sauce, pickles, cheese straws, smoked nuts, marinated olives and flavoured salts.
She suggests using up the bounty of the harvest to make jams, jellies, relishes and chili sauces in the summer, then store the results in labelled attractive jars to keep on hand for gifts at any time of year.
For novices, liqueurs are an easy introduction to handmade gifts.
“They literally take minutes and most people like a drink and you can find bottles. You don’t need to buy expensive alcohol as well. You can use cheap vodka, cheap gin, because you’re flavouring it,” says Walker, who is the food and drink editor of Country Living magazine and was formerly cookery editor at Good Housekeeping in the U.K.
At Christmas time she likes to make a selection of beverages, put them in little bottles and package a trio together for a gift. She has recipes in the book for creme de cassis, red currant gin, lemon schnapps, vanilla caramel liqueur, coffee cream liqueur and an orange aperitif. They require infusing and most will keep indefinitely.
Chutneys are “dead easy to make” too – just put the ingredients in a pan and cook them down. “And you can play around with the spices and it won’t damage the recipe in any way,” says Walker, who has trained as a professional chef and also done food styling for movies and television.
Chutney can be served with cheese, poultry, meat or fish and used in sandwiches and casseroles, plus it keeps well.
Those who enjoy a culinary challenge could opt for a wreath made with stollen, which Walker says makes a stunning centrepiece for a Christmas table.
Don’t forget about presentation.
The James Bond fan considers herself lucky to have styled extravagant canapes and other food items to appear in the movie Die Another Day, and she says it was amazing being free to wander around the set and watch Pierce Brosnan and Halle Berry during filming.
But she laments her styling ability doesn’t extend to wrapping paper. “I can’t get a straight edge for love nor money,” she says. “I always look out for vintage and antique places and charity shops and I just look for pretty boxes, nice jars.”
She likes to keep it simple, making a jar lid look nice with a circle of fabric or fancy paper and complementary string.
A pretty cup and saucer can be filled with candy, and a cake can be presented on a lovely antique stand. For cookies, she might tie a wooden spoon or cookie cutter to the packaging. These become part of the gift and can be used afterward by the recipient.
She suggests lining boxes with waxed paper. Cellophane can be wrapped around an item and tied with a ribbon or string so the contents are visible.
Walker saves scraps of ribbons, tissue paper, buttons and string in a box, then rummages for just the right decoration to package her gifts. She decorates luggage tags with stamps, stencils or cut-out shapes from craft stores for labels and ties them or clips them on with clothespins.