There's something satisfying about giving a gift you've created in your own kitchen, especially if it is out-of-the-ordinary. Instead of the usual cookies and coffee cakes, why not try hors d'oeuvres and herb vinegars?
These culinary presents can all be made in advance -- some way ahead of the holidays -- so there's no last-minute rush. For best results use only the finest quality ingredients, and packge items as directed.
When you're ready to give them away, gift-wrap the edible presents in bright paper or tinted cellophane. We've included suggestions for special packaging with some of the recipes. But feel free to use your own imagination. Also be sure to include a label with your name, the products's name, storage instructions and "shelf life."
Finally, as a special touch for recipients who also enjoy cooking and may want to try your recipe, enclose a copy neatly printed on a colorful 3-x-5-inch card. BLENDED HERB VINEGARS (Makes 1 pint per recipe)
Following are two different recipes for blended herb vinegar. Each makes one pint, but the recipes can easily be doubled or tripled. PUNGENT VINEGAR 1 pint apple cider vinegar 1 clove garlic, chopped 4 peppercorns 3 sprigs parsley, each about 4 inches long 1 dry bay leaf 1/2 teaspoon dry thyme MILDER VINEGAR 1 pint apple cider vinegar 4 pieces of green onion top, each about 4 inches long 3 sprigs parsley, each about 4 inches long 1/2 teaspoon dry mint 1 teaspoon dry basil
Put vinegar in an enamel, glass or stainless steel pot over medium heat. (Iron or aluminum will affect the taste of the final product.) When the vinegar is hot, immediately remove from burner. Do not allow to boil. Add herbs and stir to be sure they are covered. Set mixture aside to cool. When cool, ladle into jars, using a funnel if necessary. Small vinegar bottles with the labels removed work well. Wine bottles can also be used. If possible, use jars with non-metallic lids. Cap jars and set aside. Herbs should remain in vinegar at least 2 to 3 weeks to allow flavors to blend. Before giving vinegars, you can strain out the herbs, or leave them in the bottle.
On the label, note that blended herb vinegars can be turned into "instant" salad dressings by combining 1 part vinegar with 3 parts salad oil. A dash of sugar and/or salt can also be added. Herb vinegar can be kept at room temperature for 2 years. WINE JELLY (About 4 1/2 cups)
Here's a great gift for adults who would enjoy something different with their English muffins in the morning. You can use any kind of wine in the recipe that follows, even the inexpensive varieties. Two that we particularly like are a light rose and a golden sherry. Wine jelly looks pretty in an ordinary jar. But for a really attractive presentation, use inexpensive, heavy-duty wine glasses sealed with paraffin. 2 cups wine (any type) 3 cups sugar 1 box powdered pectin 3/4 cup water
Wash jelly jars and lids or wine glasses in dishwasher or boil to sterlize. Set aside.
In a medium saucepan, combine wine and sugar. Heat until sugar is dissolved and top of liquid is foamy.
Meanwhile, combine pectin and water in a seperate pan. Bring pectin mixutre to a full rolling boil, then boil 1 minute. Remove wine mixture from heat. Stir pectin into wine mixture.
Skim foam from top. Then quickly ladle into clean containers. With jelly jars, leave about 1/2-inch head room. Cover the top of each jar of jelly with a thin layer of melted paraffin (about 1/8-inch thick). Then loosely cover with caps. Label and date jars.
To pack in wine glasses, place a metal spoon in each glass to prevent breaking. Quickly ladle hot jelly into glass, leaving about 1/8-inch head room. Remove spoon. Cover the top of the jelly with 1/8-inch hot paraffin. After paraffin has hardened you can top with a decorative layer of whipped paraffin. To make whipped paraffin, melt 2 bars of paraffin in the top of a double boiler over boiling water. Cool till paraffin becomes cloudy and starts to solidify. Quickly beat with an electric mixer until foamy and slightly stiff. You must work fast. Spoon foamy paraffin over layer of hard paraffin on each glass. Wine jelly can be kept in a cool dry place for up to a year if unopened. After opening, it can be refrigerated for 6 months. GULAB JAMAN (About 3 dozen balls in syrup)
This is a quick, modern version of an old Indian/Pakistani recipe. Though made of pastry, it resembles fruit in syrup. Before the advent of milk powder, it was necessary to boil milk for several hours to thicken it while preparing this dessert.
Although the balls are deep-fried, their preparation is not at all messy. The oil is not absorbed and can be reused without filtering. Syrup: 3 cups sugar 3 cups water 7 whole cardamom seeds (if not available, use 1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom) Balls: 1 1/2 cups instant milk powder 1/2 cup flour 1/2 teaspoon baking soda 2 tablespoons butter or margarine, softened About 4 to 8 tablespoons water
First, prepare syrup. Mix all ingredients and slowly bring to a boil, making sure sugar is dissolved. Lightly boil for 10 minutes. Cool to room temperature and set aside.
Meanwhile, prepare pastry balls. Mix together milk powder, flour and baking soda. Cut in butter until it is well incorporated. Add just enough water so dough is slightly sticky, but comes away from the sides of the bowl. It should be easily handled without crumbling or sticking to the fingers. (The amount of water depends on the brand of milk powder and the humidity.)
Form dough into 1/2- to 3/4-inch diameter balls. (They will puff as they cook.) Deep fry in oil preheated to a low heat until balls make a very small sizzle sound. Fry until brown, turning periodically. (Don't worry if they are unevenly colored, since this adds to the fruit-like look.)
Drain a few seconds on paper towels. Then immediately add to prepared syrup. Soak in syrup at least 3 to 4 hours at room temperature, then refrigerate. Gulab Jaman can be stored in the refrigerator 2 to 3 months. For best flavor, do not remove cardamom seeds until serving time. Serve in a bowl with some syrup, either cold or heated to lukewarm. CARAMELS (About 60 pieces)
These are much superior in flavor to their commercially produced counterpart. But don't try to make the recipe without a candy thermometer, since this is the only accurate way to ensure they will be cooked to the correct temperature. 1 cup granulated sugar 1 cup light corn syrup 4 tablespoons butter (do not substitute margarine) 1 cup evaporated milk 1 teaspoon vanilla
Generously butter an 8-inch square metal pan and set aside. Place the sugar and syrup in a heavy 3-quart saucepa and begin to cook, stirring with a wooden spoon, over medium heat. When the mixture begins to boil, place the lid on the pot and cook for 2 minutes so that the trapped steam can "wash" the sugar crystals from the sides of the pan. Also carefully wash the stirring spoon in hot water to remove any sugar crystals.
Remove the lid and stir in butter. When the mixture starts to boil again and seems smooth, begin adding the evaporated milk very slowly, stirring constantly. It should take at least 5 minutes to add the entire cup of milk. Continue stirring the caramel vigorously, touching all parts of the pan bottom every few seconds to avoid scorching.
After the milk is added, begin testing for doneness with the candy thermometer, stirring the entire time. When the mixture reaches 244 degrees F., remove from the stove, continuing to stir for 10 seconds. Gently fold in the vanilla and immediately pour the batch into the buttered pan. Do not scrape the cooking pan, as this can affect the candy texture.
Let the candy cool, without disturbing it, until its sets. After it has cooled at room temperature for 15 minutes, you can put it in the refrigerator to speed up the process.
When the mixture is firm, turn it out of the pan. You may need to use a spatula or flex the sides of the pan to loosen it. If you have trouble removing the candy, the bottom of the pan can be heated slightly to reliquify the butter.
Cut the candy into squares and package individually in plastic wrap. Add decorative candy papers, available at cooking equipment shops, if desired. Pack candy in decorative tins or boxes. Candy will keep at room temperature for a month to 6 weeks. BLUE CHEESE (1 large ball) 1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese softened 1 rib celery, finely chopped 1 teaspoon instant minced onions 1/4 cup blue cheese (or to taste) 3/4 cup finely chopped pecans
Combine all of the ingredients, except most of the pecans. Mix well with a fork. Mold into a ball, and coat the outside with pecans. Chill. Covered tightly with plastic wrap, this cheese ball will keep for 2 weeks in the refrigerator. For an elegant presentation you may want to wrap it with an inexpensive cheese board. Advise recipient to refrigerate cheese ball as soon as possible.