Gifts From Your Kitchen
You don’t have to be a gourmet cook to give gourmet gifts. With a little time and ingenuity you can make some wonderful, renewable gifts for friends and family.
The very first thing to remember about giving gifts of food is that everything you use must be very, very clean. If you’re going to use bottles and jars, they should always be washed and usually sterilized before filling. Bottles that have corks should be sealed with wax. In every case, if you’re in doubt about whether something will need to be canned in the traditional manner or whether it will require refrigeration, then by all means double check a cookbook or other cooking reference before you begin.
The most obvious food gift is baked goods, and these can be a wonderful treat. Cookies, breads, cakes and pies are all great gifts, but they can be made a little nicer with creative packaging. There are, on the market now, colored plastic wraps. Try wrapping an assortment of small loaves of tea bread in different colored plastic. Tie each with a few strands of raffia, and while you’re tying the bow, knot a few cinnamon sticks into it. Cookies require a sturdy outer package to keep them safe, but a tin isn’t the only solution. Try a large glass jar of the sort used for pasta, or a glass apothecary jar. You can even find old cookie jars at second hand shops for very little money. Wash them thoroughly before using! Cakes can be baked into a brand new pan and the whole thing can be given as a gift. If you want to decorate the cake, try a cascade of candied flowers instead of the usual candies.
Tea is a great gift, and loose tea can be jazzed up by blending – try a plain black tea mixed with herbal fruit and mint teas – or by the addition of herbs or spices such as dried mint, cinnamon, cloves, chamomile, etc. Blending teas is fairly simple, but if you’re adding dried herbs to your tea remember that dried herbs are far stronger than fresh ones, so go easy! Package your tea blends in decorative jars or tins, and tie a loose-tea strainer to it as a decorative touch that will be much appreciated.
Flavored oils and vinegars are popular right now. How about a bottle of bread dipping oil? To infuse the oil, pour extra virgin olive oil into a saucepan and set it on a low heat. Add a lot of chopped, fresh basil (don’t try this with dried) and some peeled, crushed or chopped garlic cloves. How much of each depends on how much oil you’re infusing and what your tastes are like. You’ll have to experiment a little to find the optimal combination. Allow the oil to simmer on low heat for half an hour and then turn off the flame and let the mixture cool. Strain through several layers of cheese cloth and pour into a bottle. The oil won’t need refrigeration, but do seal the cork with some wax. Just light a candle and let the wax drop over the cork and top of the bottle. Give this as a gift with a loaf of very fresh French or Italian bread. Oil can be infused with other herbs or spices, or even hot peppers in just the same way.
Another oil-based gift is sun-dried tomatoes packed in oil. Simply buy a few packages of the dried tomatoes, and place them in a large jar. Cover with olive oil and seal. The tomatoes will become soft and supple from the oil, while the oil will pick up the flavors of the tomatoes. It’s two gifts in one, and a nice centerpiece to a basket containing pasta, a few bunches of dried herbs tied with colorful ribbons, perhaps a jar of homemade pasta sauce, and a loaf of fresh Italian bread or a sheaf of breadsticks. Get a red and white checked napkin to lay in the bottom of the basket and tie all the spices with red or green yarn or ribbon.
Vinegar can be infused without heat. Simply drop a few sprigs of your favorite herb into a bottle of vinegar. Let stand for a few days, then remove the herbs, strain, pour into your gift bottle and drop a sprig of the same herb in, if you want to make it look extra special, but do be aware that the herb will eventually break down and discolor. Cork and seal. These will keep without refrigeration for several months, and they’re not only delicious they’re decorative!
Pickles can be great to give, but unless you’re an old hand at canning, it’s best not to attempt to make them as gifts. There are far too many sorts of pickles to list here, and too many methods by which fruits and vegetables can be pickled. Mustards can be perked up with prepared horseradish, chopped garlic or even honey or brown sugar, and they can also be made from scratch if you’re really ambitious. If you’re interested in making your own, find a good book and learn from the basics on up; do not skip any of the important lessons on canning! Badly canned food can be dangerous.
Relishes and chutneys are a little easier; they generally follow one basic idea, which is to chop up fruits and vegetables and sometimes nuts, season them and let sit to allow the flavors to blend. One very fresh chutney, which is excellent with all sorts of foods, is a simple blend of chopped fresh mango, diced jicama and chopped fresh basil. Don’t be afraid to experiment with flavors when making chutneys or relishes, but please do remember that they require refrigeration unless properly canned! Try giving an assortment of condiments. Nestle the jars and bottles in a basket trimmed with a colorful ribbon for a really special look. And instead of tissue paper inside the basket, try a colorful fabric, perhaps one that matches the ribbon.
Anyone who has ever gotten a jar of party mix as a gift will probably agree that snacks make excellent gifts, especially hostess gifts. Try making your own cheese spread or cheese ball by combining cream cheese with herbs and spices and rolling in chopped almonds. Or combine several kinds of commercial cheese spreads – cheddar, blue and cream cheese are excellent together – and either mixing in chopped walnuts or making a ball or log and rolling it in the chopped nuts. Wrap with colored plastic and put it in a basket with a box of crackers and some fruit. A bottle of wine would make a nice addition to the basket as well.
Speaking of wine, there’s a great holiday gift that’s easy to make and fun to give. Take a few bottles of inexpensive red wine and pour them into a large pot. Add cinnamon sticks, cloves, cracked nutmeg, honey to taste and a cup or two of brandy. Heat on low for about half an hour, then allow to cool. Strain and pour back into the bottles and seal. Tell the recipients to heat this before serving. You’ll find this really takes the chill out of winter weather.
As welcome as gifts of this type can be, a way to make them even more fun and more personal is to create your own labels for the jars, tins and bottles you fill. If you have a color printer that accepts self-adhesive labels, you can really go to town, dressing up your mulled wine with labels featuring clip art and interesting fonts. Get crazy or make them as beautiful as you can, but make them personal. Call your wine “Chateau (your name)” Label mustards as “Moutarde de Moi” (My Mustard) or something equally silly. Above all, have some fun.
The ideas here are intended to get you thinking about what you'd like to give as gifts. Don't limit yourself to anything in this article; it's only a starting point. Above all, make your gifts memorable, make them yours with little decorative and culinary touches, and your friends will never forget the gifts they got from your kitchen.