By Melissa Clark, The New York Times
Of all the holiday gifts I’ve been lucky enough to receive, it’s the tasty homemade ones that stay in my memory. There were the shelf-stable bottles of batched cocktails ready for a quick stir with ice, the cookie boxes with gingerbread galore, the pleasingly sticky brittles and toffees, and all the festive chocolate bark.
Homemade gifts are intimate and full of care. You’re actively thinking about the happiness of the people on your gift list as you stir, chop and measure. They’re also efficient: You can make a big batch that’s perfect for all or at least several recipients. And they eliminate the time-sucking indecision that comes with trying to find just the right thing for people who already have a lot of stuff.
But maybe the best part in this season of soaring inflation is that homemade gifts cost little. And if you love to cook, making them is fun.
Here are four recipes to please an array of the loved ones on your list.
If you’ve ever sent someone a giant tin of gourmet popcorn, you know how expensive the good ones can be. But popcorn kernels are cheap, and turning them into batches of caramel corn and Cheddar popcorn is straightforward. You will need to get your hands on some Cheddar powder, which is indispensable for that singular finger-licking pleasure of cheese dust. Spice shops carry it, as do many online purveyors.
If you don’t want to splurge on holiday-themed tins for packing it up, set your children (young or adult) to decorating paper lunch bags with stickers, markers, paints and anything they can catch and glue down. Just avoid those diabolical sparkles when it comes to food gifts of any kind.
For candy lovers, the usual holiday bark pales in comparison to this box of peppermint saltine toffee. The topping, a glistening red and white smattering of crushed candy canes, is as easy as it is eye-catching.
Jars or tins of homemade hot chocolate mix — with or without the marshmallows — will delight any snowman-builders, ice skaters or snow shovelers who yearn for a hot mug of cocoa to warm their icy digits. But even those in warmer climates will be thrilled to sip from such a creamy, bittersweet cup.
And finally, for cocktail bibbers, I can personally attest to how much a bottle of batched rye manhattan can make one’s day and the whole holiday season that much more festive.
Recipe: Hot Chocolate Mix
Fancy hot chocolate mixes can be wildly expensive, but they’re extremely easy to make at home. This one uses a mix of bittersweet and milk chocolate to give it a deeply complex flavor. (For a vegan version, you can substitute vegan milk chocolate.) This makes an excellent winter gift, packaged in festive jars or tins and will keep for at least six months stored at room temperature. Feel free to double or triple the recipe as needed. — Melissa Clark
Yield: 4 servings
Total time: 10 minutes
- 1/3 cup/35 grams powdered sugar
- 1/4 cup/30 grams unsweetened cocoa powder, either natural or Dutch-process (see Tip)
- 1/4 cup/40 grams chopped bittersweet chocolate (preferably 62 to 72% cacao)
- 1/4 cup/40 grams chopped milk chocolate or vegan milk chocolate
- 1 teaspoon vanilla bean paste (optional)
- Pinch of fine sea salt
- Mini marshmallows
1. In a blender or food processor, combine sugar, cocoa powder, both chocolates, vanilla paste (if using) and salt. Pulse to pulverize into a coarse powder. Transfer to an airtight jar. Package marshmallows in another airtight jar.
2. To prepare: Fill a small pot with 4 cups whole milk or your favorite alternative milk (almond, oat, rice, coconut, etc.), and bring to a simmer. Whisk in cocoa mixture until very smooth. Serve topped with whipped cream or marshmallows.
Natural cocoa will give you a more complex flavor; Dutch-process gives a deeper, richer color.
Recipe: Caramel Cheddar Popcorn
There’s a sweet and salty allure to eating caramel corn and Cheddar popcorn in the same bite, but popcorn purists can keep the two flavors separate. Either way, a giant tin of homemade fancy popcorn is the gift that everyone wants and no one thinks to ask for. And it’s a lot less expensive to make yourself than it is to buy. The popcorn will last stored airtight at room temperature for up to two weeks. — Melissa Clark
Yield: About 6 quarts (24 cups)
Total time: 45 minutes
For the Caramel Popcorn:
- 3 quarts popped unsalted popcorn (pick out any unpopped kernels)
- 3/4 cup dark brown sugar
- 6 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 3 tablespoons corn syrup
- 3/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
- 3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
For the Cheddar Popcorn:
- 3/4 cup Cheddar powder
- 1 tablespoon mustard powder
- 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
- 3 quarts popped unsalted popcorn (pick out any unpopped kernels)
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted, plus more if needed
1. Heat oven to 250 degrees, and line 2 rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper.
2. Make caramel popcorn: Place popcorn in a very large mixing bowl. In a medium pot, bring brown sugar, butter and corn syrup to a boil. Cook, stirring constantly, until butter and sugar have melted (the mixture should be foamy), about 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in salt and vanilla. Remove from heat, and stir in baking soda. (Mixture should bubble up.)
3. Immediately pour hot syrup over the popcorn and use a spatula or large spoon to mix it well. Scrape popcorn onto the prepared baking sheets in one layer. Bake until crisp, rotating the pan and tossing popcorn after 15 minutes, 20 to 30 minutes total. To test for doneness, carefully remove a piece of the popcorn, let it cool for 30 seconds or so, then take a bite; if it’s crisp, it’s done. Set aside to cool.
4. While the caramel popcorn is in the oven, prepare the Cheddar popcorn: In a mixing bowl, whisk together the Cheddar and mustard powders and salt.
5. Place popcorn in a very large mixing bowl. Pour melted butter on top of popcorn and toss to combine. Sprinkle Cheddar mixture over popcorn and toss well using a rubber spatula. If the mixture looks dry, add a little more melted butter.
6. Pour popcorn onto the second prepared baking sheet in one layer. Bake until dry, about 5 to 10 minutes, rotating the pan and tossing popcorn halfway through. Let cool completely.
7. Combine Cheddar and caramel popcorn, or keep them separate, and pack them into tins, jars or bags.
Cheddar powder is available at spice stores, and online. To pop your own popcorn, heat 3 tablespoons of oil in a large, heavy pot over medium-high heat. Add 3 kernels of popcorn and cover. When it pops, add another 1/3 cup popcorn kernels and reduce heat to medium-low. Partly cover the pot (leaving a crack open and away from you, or use a splatter screen to cover the pot; you want the steam to escape). Continue to cook until the popping stops. Transfer popcorn to a bowl and sprinkle with salt.
Recipe: Peppermint Saltine Toffee Bark
A cross between a cookie and candy, classic saltine toffee is made by pouring a quickly made brown sugar caramel over a layer of salty crackers, baking it, then coating the whole thing with chocolate. This version uses a copious amount of bittersweet chocolate for the topping, which helps offset the sweetness of the toffee mixture. (Note that the higher the cacao percentage, the less sweet this treat will be.) The crushed candy cane topping makes this perfect for tucking into a holiday cookie box, but you can make it anytime of year. Toasted nuts, shredded coconut, dried fruit, colorful dragees and chopped candied ginger would all make excellent alternatives. — Melissa Clark
Yield: About 2 dozen pieces
Total time: 50 minutes, plus chilling
- 6 ounces/about 6 cups saltine crackers
- 1 cup/225 grams unsalted butter
- 1 1/2 packed cups/315 grams dark brown sugar
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- Large pinch of fine sea salt
- 1 1/2 pounds chopped bittersweet chocolate (preferably around 70% cacao)
- 2 teaspoons neutral oil, such as grapeseed or sunflower
- 3/4 cup crushed candy canes (about 12 whole candy canes, see Tip)
- Flaky sea salt
1. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Line a 13-by-18-inch rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil, allowing it to go up and over the edges of the pan. Line the bottom of the pan with a piece of parchment. Arrange crackers over parchment in an even layer, breaking pieces to fit as necessary.
2. In a medium pot over medium-high heat, bring butter and sugar to a boil, whisking, until thickened and smooth, about 3 minutes. The mixture may separate, and that is OK. Stir in vanilla and salt.
3. Working quickly, pour mixture over crackers. Using an offset spatula, rubber spatula or even the back of a spoon, carefully spread caramel all over the crackers. (Try to keep the saltines all in one even layer.) Transfer baking sheet to oven and bake until bubbly, about 10 to 15 minutes. Transfer pan to a wire rack to cool completely before topping, at least 15 minutes.
4. Pour about 1 inch of water in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil. In a medium metal mixing bowl that fits on top of the saucepan, combine chocolate and oil. Place the bowl on top of the pan. (Be sure the water is not touching the bottom of the mixing bowl; if so, pour out some water.) Reduce heat to medium-low and allow the chocolate mixture to melt, stirring frequently with a rubber spatula. (Alternatively, combine chocolate and oil in a bowl and microwave in 30-second blasts, stirring in between, until melted and smooth, about 2 minutes total.)
5. Pour melted chocolate on top of cooled crackers. Use an offset spatula to spread chocolate smoothly over the surface of the toffee. Immediately sprinkle the crushed candy canes on top and sprinkle with a little sea salt.
6. Transfer baking sheet to refrigerator and chill for about an hour to set chocolate. Break saltine toffee into large pieces for storing and serving. Toffee will keep at room temperature in an airtight container for up to a week, after which it may get a little soft but still taste pretty good.
To crush candy canes, put them in a heavy-duty plastic bag, wrap the bag in a kitchen towel and hit the bag with a rolling pin or heavy can.
Recipe: Large-Batch Rye Manhattan Cocktails
According to cocktail historian David Wondrich, from whom this recipe is adapted, this is the manhattan as it was made from the 1890s until the 1960s, and again since the 2000s. The optional absinthe, which amounts to no more than a dash per drink, is a late-19th century addition that gives the drink a little herbal pizazz; do not use more than suggested. This keeps for weeks at room temperature. — Melissa Clark
Yield: 10 to 12 cocktails
Total time: 10 minutes
- 2 2/3 cups 100-proof rye whiskey
- 1 1/3 cups red Italian vermouth
- 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon Angostura bitters
- 1 1/4 teaspoons absinthe (optional)
- Lemon twists or brandied cherries, for serving
1. In a clean, sealable 750-milliliter or quart glass bottle, combine the whiskey, vermouth, bitters and absinthe, if using.
2. To serve, stir 3 ounces (about 1/3 cup) per cocktail with ice and strain into chilled cocktail glasses. Garnish each glass with either a twist (hold lemon peel over glass and twist it to extract the aromatic oils), or with a cherry.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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