In the Howard County farming country where I grew up, kitchen gifts were an important part of the holidays. Few families I knew gave expensive presents, even to close relatives. Budgets simply didn't permit it. But most people were generous in spirit, so it was popular to drop by friends' and relatives' homes every year to remember them with a special homemade treat.
One gift my family always looked forward to was Mrs. Rice's banana nut bread (inevitably, tied up with a red and green plaid bow). We also eagerly anticipated several gifts of pickles -- Mrs. Miller's big, chunky sour ones and Aunt Roberta's allspice- and mustard-seed-sparked green tomato slices. My grandmother and mother were into the custom, too: Nana doled out jars of her red and wild black raspberry jelly and, to those with a fondness for it, quince jelly as well. My mother (usually with my help) readied and dispensed fondant-stuffed dates, rolled sugar cookies and, sometimes, her favorite brandy-soaked plum pudding.
While I was never a great fan of Mother's stuffed dates and her pudding seems too rich and heavy for today's holiday table, the kitchen gifts habit has stayed with me. In fact, no matter how many presents I buy, I don't really feel ready for the holidays until I make some edibles to give.
Not only is readying homemade presents gratifying, but, for me, packaging them creatively is too. I'm always on the lookout for pretty, reusable tins, boxes, glass canisters and disposable plain and decorated cellophane bags for presenting candies, nuts and cookies. For the chutneys, sauces and mulled wine mix, I seek out small antique and modern preserving jars, and for the herb vinegars I both buy and recycle interesting glass bottles. (Due to the acidity of vinegar, I purchase bottles with corks rather than metal caps, and replace the caps and corks of reused bottles with new corks obtained from a craft shop.)
Some kitchen gifts, like the mulled wine mix and chocolate sauce, require tags or cards providing heating or mixing instructions. Usually, I produce these with my computer. Even when giving directions isn't essential, I think it's a nice touch to include a handcrafted tag imprinted with a personal message and attached to the gift with ribbon, yarn or raffia. I also use lengths of thin, colorful wired ribbon in place of ordinary twist-ties for packing cellophane bags of cookies, candies and such. This makes the opening and closing convenient, yet avoids the usual plain, plastic tie.
Most of the following recipes don't require any special culinary skill or even a lot of time. It's the fact that they are created with your own two hands, thoughtfully chosen to suit your recipients' tastes and supremely fresh that makes them very special.
Spiced Frosted Nuts
(Makes about 11/4 pounds nuts or about 16 servings)
Those who try to avoid rich desserts and candies but still like a little something sweet are certain to appreciate these lightly spiced and sugared nuts.
The recipe may easily be doubled, but you'll need to bake the nuts on two baking sheets rather than one.
Butter or nonstick spray oil for the baking sheet
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup packed light brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 large egg white
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 pound (about 4 1/4 cups) pecan or walnut halves
Adjust the oven rack to the middle position and preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Lightly coat a large rimmed baking sheet with butter or oil.
In a large bowl, stir together the granulated and brown sugars and cinnamon until well blended. Set aside.
In a medium bowl using a fork, beat together the egg white and salt until frothy. Add the nuts and toss until each nut is completely coated. Set aside.
Add the nut mixture to the sugar mixture and stir until each nut is completely coated. Turn the nuts onto the prepared baking sheet, spreading the mixture to form an even layer. Bake the nuts, stirring well every 10 minutes, until crisp and dry, 30 to 40 minutes. Stir again and transfer the pan to a wire rack to cool to room temperature. Pack in tins, jars or other attractive, airtight containers. (May store for up to 1 week at room temperature or for up to 1 month in the refrigerator.)
Per serving: 219 calories, 2 gm protein, 13 gm carbohydrates, 19 gm fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 2 gm saturated fat, 41 mg sodium, 2 gm dietary fiber
Decadent Chocolate Sauce
(Makes 3 to 4 cups)
This rich chocolate sauce makes an easy yet festive holiday dessert when spooned over ice cream.
Since the flavor and sweetness of the sauce depend heavily on the particular chocolates used, always choose a type or brand of chocolate with a taste and level of sweetness that you -- or the recipients -- are certain to like.
Be sure to include the reheating instructions on a tag or gift card, so the recipient will know that the sauce is too thick to flow at room temperature and so must be served warm.
14 ounces semisweet or bittersweet (not unsweetened) chocolate, coarsely chopped
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into chunks
11/3 cups hot water
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
To make the sauce: In a deep, microwave-safe bowl, combine the chocolate and butter. Cover with wax paper and microwave on high power for 1 minute, stopping and stirring after 30 seconds. Then microwave on 50 percent power for 30 seconds more and stir. The chocolate may not be completely melted; this is okay. Set the chocolate mixture aside for a few minutes to cool slightly.
Carefully transfer the chocolate mixture to a blender or a food processor fitted with a steel blade and pulse until well combined. With the motor running, slowly add the hot water through the feed tube or top and process until the mixture is completely blended and smooth. Add the vanilla in the same fashion and mix until thoroughly incorporated and smooth. (The sauce will stiffen and harden as it cools.)
Divide the sauce among several attractive jars or other containers, cover and refrigerate for up to 3 weeks.
To reheat the sauce: Microwave the sauce on 50 percent power, stirring every 30 seconds, until warm and pourable. Serve warm. (If the sauce thickens so much that it doesn't thin after reheating, stir in a little hot water, 1 teaspoon at a time, until the sauce is pourable.
Per 1/4-cup serving: 234 calories, 2 gm protein, 19 gm carbohydrates, 20 gm fat, 22 mg cholesterol, 12 gm saturated fat, 4 mg sodium, 3 gm dietary fiber
Fresh Basil-Chive or Tarragon-Chive Vinegar
(Makes one 12- to 16-ounce bottle of vinegar)
The same basic recipe can be used to prepare a bottle of tarragon-white wine vinegar or basil-red wine vinegar. Either of these vinegars blends with olive oil to yield a flavorful, fresh-tasting vinaigrette.
The easiest method of procuring bottles is to simply add the herbs to the bottles the vinegar came in; in this case, remove the labels and add your own. If preparing a large number of bottles, be aware that vinegar is usually considerably less expensive if purchased in large quantities. For a more decorative look, consider purchasing attractive cork-stoppered bottles.
4 to 5 large, fresh, leafy sprigs basil or tarragon
12 to 15 chives, cut into 3-inch lengths
12- to 16-ounces red or white wine vinegar (if using basil, opt for red wine vinegar; if using tarragon, opt for white wine vinegar)
Trim and discard any brown, yellowed or bruised herb leaves. Gently rinse the remaining herb sprigs under cool water and carefully pat dry.
If using basil, have ready a bottle nearly full of red wine vinegar; if using tarragon, have ready a bottle nearly full of white wine vinegar.
Using a long skewer, a thin knife or a fondue fork, push the sprigs into the bottle of vinegar. Then push the chives into bottle. Be sure that the herbs are completely submerged in the vinegar; if the vinegar starts to overflow the top, just pour off any excess vinegar. Cork or seal the bottle and set aside to steep for at least a few days so the flavors can develop. (Since the herbs remain in the bottle, the flavor intensifies over time. May store unopened bottles of herb vinegars, unrefrigerated but in a cool dark spot, for up to 1 year.
Mulled Wine Mix
(Makes 3 generous cups mix, enough for 6 to 8 bottles of wine)
This aromatic, flavorful mixture makes a lovely gift. If you wish, you could supply an entire gift kit by including a bottle or two of wine! Don't forget to include the instructions for making the mulled wine.
12 to 14 penny-size pieces orange zest
Ten to eleven 3-inch cinnamon sticks, broken into about 1-inch long pieces
22/3 cups granulated sugar
11/2 tablespoons whole allspice berries
Scant 1 tablespoon whole cloves
Six or eight 750-milliliter bottles robust red wine, such as Cabernet
To make the mix: Place the orange zest on a small plate and set aside at room temperature to dry for 12 to 18 hours.
Break the cinnamon sticks into about 1-inch pieces. (If the sticks are too hard to break with your hands, slip them into a heavy-duty plastic bag and whack them with a kitchen mallet until coarsely broken.)
In a medium bowl, combine the sugar, dried orange zest, cinnamon pieces, allspice and cloves and mix until evenly incorporated.
Divide the mixture evenly into 1/3 to 1/2 cup portions, depending on how sweet and spiced you wish the resulting wine to be. Be careful to incorporate an equal amount of each spice in each portion.
Package each portion in small glass jars, tin canisters or cellophane bags. Set aside at room temperature for at least a few days for the flavors to develop.
To make mulled wine: In a nonreactive saucepan over medium heat, combine 1/3 to 1/2 cup Mulled Wine Mix per 750-milliliter bottle of red wine. Heat the mixture, stirring until the sugar is dissolved, just until steam rises and the mixture simmers very gently. Do not allow the wine to boil. Mull the wine for 30 to 40 minutes. Strain the mixture through a fine sieve, discarding the spices. Transfer to a pot and rewarm over low heat.
Serve warm, if desired with several thin slices of seedless orange floating on the surface.
Per serving: 199 calories, trace protein, 30 gm carbohydrates, 0 gm fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 0 gm saturated fat, 7 mg sodium, 0 gm dietary fiber
(Makes about 128 candies, or 21/2 pounds plain and 2 3/4 pounds nut caramels)
Old-fashioned, homemade caramels have a succulent, mellow flavor and creamy-chewy texture that make them a memorable gift. These can be tucked inside an attractive reusable tin or glass canister or slipped inside cellophane bags.
It is important to follow the directions carefully and to avoid preparing the candy on rainy days. You'll need a candy thermometer (or other thermometer that registers up to 300 degrees); I find digital models the easiest to read. It's also a good idea to have kitchen mitts or heavy potholders on hand for lifting the cooking pot -- it gets hot.
Nonstick spray oil for the dish
11/3 cups granulated sugar
2/3 cup packed light brown sugar
11/4 cups light corn syrup
2 cups heavy (whipping) cream
10 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature, cut into pieces
1/4 teaspoon salt
11/4 teaspoons vanilla extract
3 tablespoons hot water
1 cup (4 ounces) chopped pecans or walnuts (optional)
Line a 9-by-13-inch baking dish with heavy-duty foil, allowing the foil to extend at least 2 inches beyond the narrow ends of the pan. Generously spray the foil with oil. Place the dish on a wire rack.
In a heavy 6-quart, nonreactive pot or Dutch oven, stir together the granulated and brown sugars, corn syrup and 1 cup cream. Attach a candy thermometer to the side of the pot, making sure the tip is submerged in the mixture but doesn't touch the bottom of the pot. Place the pot over medium-high heat and, stirring constantly with a long-handled wooden spoon, bring to a boil. Using a pastry brush dipped in water or damp paper towels, carefully remove any sugar crystals from the side of the pan. (This prevents the resulting caramel from having a grainy texture.)
Reduce the heat to medium so the mixture boils briskly. Stirring constantly and scraping the bottom of the pan, gradually add the remaining 1 cup cream in a thin, steady stream, adding the cream in a slow enough stream so that the mixture keeps boiling slightly. When the mixture returns to a full boil, add the butter and salt and stir until the butter melts and is completely incorporated.
Continue to boil, gently stirring and scraping the pan bottom, until the mixture turns a light caramel color and thickens somewhat, 8 or 9 minutes. Reduce the heat slightly and continue cooking, scraping the bottom and watching carefully for signs of scorching, until the caramel turns a rich caramel color and reaches 250 to 252 degrees, about 15 minutes longer. Using kitchen mitts or heavy pot holders, immediately remove the pot from the heat. Standing back to avoid splattering and steam, carefully stir in the hot water, vanilla and, if desired, the nuts, and stir until well blended.
Again using mitts or pot holders, immediately pour the caramel into the prepared dish, being careful to pour it slowly so the hot caramel does not splash. Do not scrape the pot. Set the caramel aside to cool completely, about 60 minutes.
To cut the caramels, refrigerate the caramel until slightly firm, 15 to 20 minutes. Grasp the pieces of foil extending beyond the pan and remove the caramel from the dish in 1 piece. Invert the caramel onto a large cutting board and remove and discard the foil. If very even pieces are desired, use a lightly oiled sharp knife to trim and discard any uneven edges of the slab. (These are good for nibbling.) Using the same knife, score the caramel in half lengthwise, then cut each half into fourths. Cut the caramel in half crosswise, then cut each half into sixths.
To wrap the caramel, have ready about 128 pieces of wax paper cut into 4-inch squares. Place a caramel in the center of the paper and twist the ends to keep the paper from unwrapping. (It's best to store caramel in the refrigerator or in a very cool place. However, the caramel should be allowed to warm before serving.)
Per caramel: 42 calories, trace protein, 6 gm carbohydrates, 2 gm fat, 8 mg cholesterol, 1 gm saturated fat, 10 mg sodium, trace dietary fiber
(Makes about 2 1/2 pounds fudge)
This simple, nearly foolproof recipe is perfect for novice candymakers or for children who want to help.
Short-cut fudge doesn't have quite the same flavor as traditional slow-cooked, beaten fudge, but it has a creamy texture and taste and makes an appealing gift for chocolate lovers.
This fudge is so rich that the addition of something tart, creamy or crunchy -- dried fruit, marshmallows or nuts -- helps to soften that richness.
Nonstick spray oil for the dish
14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into pieces
12-ounce package semisweet chocolate chips
2 ounces unsweetened chocolate, finely chopped
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups miniature marshmallows (optional)
1 cup dried sweetened cranberries (optional)
1 cup (4 ounces) chopped walnuts or pecans (optional)
Line an 8-inch square pan with aluminum foil, allowing the foil to extend beyond 2 sides of the pan. Generously spray the foil with oil.
In a medium saucepan over medium-low heat, heat the condensed milk and butter, stirring almost constantly, just until the butter melts. Be very careful not to scorch the mixture. Add the chocolate chips and chopped chocolate, reduce the heat to low and heat, stirring constantly, just until the chocolate melts.
Immediately remove the pan from the heat; add the vanilla and stir until completely incorporated. Add the marshmallows, cranberries and nuts and mix until evenly incorporated. Immediately scrape the fudge into the prepared pan. Using an oiled table knife, press the fudge into the pan and smooth the surface. Transfer the dish to a wire rack to cool to room temperature. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour prior to cutting.
To cut the fudge, grasp the pieces of foil extending beyond the pan and remove the fudge from the dish in 1 piece. Invert the fudge onto a large cutting board and remove and discard the foil. If very even pieces are desired, use a large knife to trim and discard any uneven edges of the slab. (These are good for nibbling.) Using the same knife, cut the fudge into whatever size desired, keeping in mind that the fudge is very rich. Pack the fudge in airtight tins or boxes with wax paper between layers and refrigerate.
Per serving 100 calories, 1 gm protein, 15 gm carbohydrates, 5 gm fat, 5 mg cholesterol, 3 gm saturated fat, 18 mg sodium, 1 gm dietary fiber
Nancy Baggett is the author of "The All-American Cookie Book"(Houghton Mifflin, 2001). She can be reached through her Web site,