Early December is the perfect time to start thinking about what you can give others this holiday season. One way to make a great impression on the recipient is to give them something from your kitchen. And certain treats that are made only this time of year are even more special.
Some goodies, such as taffy and peanut brittle, can be created only in cool weather. In Georgia, that can be a little more sporadic than in other states. Heat and humidity are the kryptonite of homemade candy because it will melt.
Speaking of homemade candy, if you keep bags of candy melts or blocks of almond bark on hand, you’ll be prepared when the weather cooperates. For an easy treat, melt milk chocolate or white chocolate in a microwave-safe glass bowl, and pour onto wax paper. Sprinkle crushed candy canes, nuts or dried fruit on top, and let harden. Another idea is to dip cookies into chocolate. You can get fancy by dipping round chocolate sandwich cookies in melted white chocolate, laying them on a wire rack to drain and sprinkling with your favorite cookie decorations.
A tin of decorated Christmas cookies makes a great gift and is fun to make. One time-saving tip is to make your dough ahead of time and freeze it. Once the dough is finished, place it in a gallon-size zip-top bag, and press it all to the bottom. Then roll the bag up, seal it and freeze it until needed. When you are ready to cut a roll into cookies, put it in the fridge to thaw, as you want to make sure the dough is still cold enough to hold its shape. As you go through the cutting and baking process, always keep the extra dough refrigerated because room-temperature dough does not cooperate. If you’re going to decorate with frosting, be certain your cookies have cooled completely. It’s best if you can bake them the day before.
Gifts from the kitchen don’t necessarily have to be desserts. You could make jams, jellies, spice combinations, even homemade vanilla extract (but that one requires three months. Slice six fresh vanilla beans lengthwise, drop into one liter of vodka and cover. Let sit for at least three months, shaking every week. When the vodka changes color, the extract is done. Strain out the vanilla bean pieces, and store in a separate container). For instance, you could mix up a batch of your famous rib rub, steak seasoning or house seasoning, put it in a glass jar with a label and give it to someone with a couple of recipes, an apron and a wooden spoon or tongs. Or you could give someone a Mississippi pork kit — a jar of spice blends, another jar of pepperoncini peppers, a recipe for preparing and an oven mitt or pair of tongs. All they’ll need to do is add their choice of meat.
Another idea is to bake some type of bread. Homemade bread always smells so good and is such a treat. If you’re making a savory bread or biscuits to give as a gift, put them in a basket lined with a pretty towel, then add a cute spreader and some flavored butter and jam. Flavors can be sweet or savory, but always start with softened butter. For one stick of butter, add 2 tablespoons of sugar and 1 teaspoon of cinnamon. Honey also can be added to butter. Another idea is to mix in crushed fresh parsley, basil or rosemary. Keep in mind the strength of the herbs will increase over time. Butter can be stored in a small jar with a lid in the refrigerator until gift-giving time. Sweet breads also are great to give, especially if you have mini loaf pans. One batch of chocolate banana bread (see recipe) will make four mini loaves. Don’t have a mini loaf pan? Try baking the recipe in muffin tins instead, just reduce the cooking time.
No matter what you create in your kitchen to give as gifts, your friends and family will appreciate your thoughtfulness and creativity. Happy holidays, everyone!
– Tiffany Hughes is an Acworth resident and works for the Booth Western Art Museum. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Chocolate Banana Bread
• 2 cups all-purpose flour
• 2 tablespoons dark cocoa powder
• ¼ teaspoon baking soda
• ½ teaspoon salt
• ½ cup brown sugar
• ½ cup granulated sugar
• ½ stick butter, softened
• 2 large ripe bananas, mashed
• 2 eggs
• ⅓ cup plain Greek yogurt
• OPTIONAL: ½ cup peanut butter chips, chocolate chips and/or chopped nuts
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a small bowl, whisk together flour, cocoa powder, baking soda and salt. Place sugars and butter in a large bowl, and beat with a hand mixer on medium until well blended (about one minute). Add bananas, eggs and yogurt, and beat on low just until moist. Stir in chips and/or nuts by hand. Place in two medium loaf pans coated with cooking spray. Bake at 350 for one hour and 15 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool 10 minutes on a wire rack, then remove from pan. Wrap and store in refrigerator.
Mim’s Light and Fluffy Peanut Brittle
• 4 cups raw peanuts, shelled with husks on
• 2 cups granulated sugar
• 16 ounces Karo dark corn syrup (no substitutions!)
• 2 tablespoons baking soda
Place ingredients in a large Dutch oven in the following order: peanuts, sugar and syrup. Turn heat to medium-high, place a candy thermometer in the pan and cook, stirring frequently, until mixture reaches the hard crack (300 degrees) stage. Immediately remove from heat, and quickly stir in baking soda. Stop stirring when baking soda is dissolved. Pour mixture onto two baking sheets and let cool. Once brittle is completely cool, break into pieces and store in an airtight container.
• 32 ounces fresh or frozen berries
• 2 cups granulated sugar
• Juice and zest from 1 lime
Place berries in a stockpot, and cover with water. Cook on medium-high until fruit begins to break down, stirring frequently. Whisk in sugar, lime juice and zest, and cook until sugar dissolves and water is reduced. Add additional water, and cook until fruit has completely broken down. Remove from heat, and transfer to a glass jar. When the jar is cool, store in the refrigerator.
• 2-4 pounds pork loin
• 1½ tablespoons dry ranch
• 1 tablespoon onion powder or onion granules
• 2 tablespoons dry chicken bouillon
• 6-8 pepperoncini peppers, plus juice
• 1 stick butter
• Salt to taste
Place pork in a slow cooker, and sprinkle generously with the dry spices. Arrange peppers around meat, drizzle with some of the juice from the pepper jar and place a stick of butter directly on top. Cover and cook on high for four hours or on low for six hours. When meat is finished, shred and return to the cooker for an additional 30 minutes. Check seasonings, and salt to taste. This also works great on beef roast and chicken.
NOTE: Try roasting some of the cooked meat at 400 degrees until golden brown. Serve in a taco with slaw or grilled pineapple.
Easy Sugar Cookies
• 2 sticks butter, softened
• 1 cup granulated sugar
• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 1 teaspoon butter extract or almond extract
• 1 egg
• 1 teaspoon water
• 3 cups all-purpose flour
• 1½ teaspoons baking powder
• ¼ teaspoon salt
In a large bowl, thoroughly cream butter, sugar and extracts. Add egg and water, and beat until light and fluffy. In a separate bowl, combine flour, baking powder and salt. Blend into the cream mixture. Divide dough in half, place in a bowl, cover with plastic wrap and chill for one hour. On a lightly floured surface, roll dough to desired thickness, and cut with cookie cutters. Bake at 375 degrees for 7-9 minutes, or just until edges turn golden. Remove from oven, and cool on a wire rack. Decorate with buttercream or royal icing.