Five strategies for making edible gifts (and more)

As soon as the first flakes of snow fall (and they did last week) I start thinking about holiday giving. And by that I mean, edible holiday gifts. An Organic Conversation invited me on their radio show to talk about just that. The podcast on their site should be up sometime this week. (If you are in the car you can listen to it on Stitcher.) The whole exercise made me revisit some of my ideas, and ways I have streamlined the process over the years to make it more enjoyable.

Let’s face it, for some people an evening at home puttering around the kitchen is much more satisfying and far less stressful than traipsing through a mall with a gift list. Even if cooking or baking is a challenge, you can reacquaint yourself with your kitchen and avoid the crowds, parking stress, and gift anxiety. There are still many simple gifts you can make that don’t require an oven. So turn up the music and give yourself the gift of a night at home away from the shopping madness.

Chocolate Whiskey Truffles

FIVE TIPS AND STRATEGIES FOR MAKING EDIBLE GIFTS

1. Plan now: The gift. Before you decide what you will prepare, make a list of your recipients and look for a common thread. What would all of them like to receive? If you have a friend struggling with her weight or someone with food allergies, certain gifts may not be a one-size-fits-all solution. Narrow your recipe choices to one that everyone on your list could enjoy. If you really, really want to make chocolate truffles and they wouldn’t suit everyone on your list, decide to make a second, simple gift like chai mix or preserved lemons for those with food allergies or health concerns.

2. Plan now: The wrapping. The packaging has to be as delicious and inviting as the food itself. Once you have decided on a gift, how are you going to package it? Will you need jars? Cellophane bags? Ribbon?  Gift tags or labels?  When you are out and about, notice how gifts are packaged in places like Williams Sonoma or department stores. Adapt those ideas to your style (Rustic? Glitzy? Minimalist?) Order supplies online now, or identify where you need to go locally to buy what you need.

3. Plan now: The shopping. Create a shopping list and pick up ingredients on your usual trip to the grocery store. On the same trip, swing by a craft store, paper store or hardware store to get wrapping supplies.

4. Schedule. Pick a day or evening when you want to make your gifts. Then pick another day to package them. The idea is to have fun, not to exhaust yourself, so spread it out. If you are making cookies, for instance, make the dough one night, bake them on another night, and wrap them on still another night

5. Give yourself the gift of friendship. If you want to blast through a cookie project in a day, consider inviting a friend or two over and do a cookie bake-off together (each person can bring some dough). While the cookies cool, pour a glass of wine and sit down to a simple spaghetti dinner. Then back to wrapping. Girls’ night in, anyone? It’s a wonderful way to share some coveted time with close friends.

PACKAGING IDEAS

Cake and cookie boxes  

Williams Sonoma

Meri meri

,The Paper Source

(also cool ribbon and trim)

The Container Store

Jars, cookie boxes and bags, ribbon, cellophane bags,

Sur La Table

Clear cellophane bags, candy foil, pastry boxes, and more

Martha Stewart

Of course Martha has a great selection of STUFF

West Elm Market

Paper (disposable bundt pans, Weck canning jars

Other places to look:

Hardware stores: canning jars, brown paper, key tags, labels, natural and cotton string

Staples or office supply stores: labels, markers, key tags (round white paper with aluminum rims)

Five and ten stores, Target: cookie tins, gift tags

Ikea: if you want to brave this mega store, you will find some unusual Scandinavian decorations and wraps, like pretty paper cones, that you can use for your presentation

Second hand, “antique” stores: Sometimes you will find pretty mugs, plates, jars or glasses to hold cookies or cakes or….

TEN NO-BAKE RECIPE IDEAS

1. Chai Mix

(give with a box of tea)

2. Preserved lemons

3. Pancake mix: Fill a jar with the dry ingredients of your favorite “from scratch” pancake mix. Write directions on a tag attached with a ribbon.

4. Muffin mix: Fill a jar with the dry ingredients of your favorite “from scratch” pancake mix. Write directions on a tag attached with a ribbon. For example:

5. Spiced cocoa: In a pretty jar, Layer your favorite unsweetened cocoa powder with sugar, bury a vanilla bean and/or some cinnamon sticks in the mix, or add some chili powder or more ground cinnamon if you like. Write directions on a tag attached with a ribbon.

6. Cookie mix: Another welcome time saver! Layer ingredients in a jar. For example, oatmeal chocolate cookies: Layer the chocolate chips, oats, sugar, and thoroughly mixed dry ingredients in a jar. Write directions on a tag attached with a ribbon.

7. Chocolate fruit and nut bars

8.Herb salt

9. Flavored sugars: Vanilla sugar: Bury a split vanilla bean in a 2-cup jar of sugar. Leave to infuse for 1-2 weeks. Give to the baker on your list with a few spare vanilla beans.  Lavender sugar. In a food processor, pulse 2 teaspoons dried lavender flowers until mixed. Store in a jar for 1 to 2 weeks. Sift through a fine-meshed strainer.

10. Homemade nutella

Coming soon: Greek honey cookies!

When things fall apart (bake banana bread)

It could start with a furnace.

You come home after a couple of days away. It is mid-winter and mid-cold snap. A few days before, too far down the highway to turn back, you realized you had forgotten to set the heat on its energy-conserving temperature. Oh well. At least after a long ride home you can expect to open the back door to a toasty, welcoming sixty-eight degrees.

Wait a minute! It’s fifty-one in here. You think back to the cold snap a few years ago, and recall how your cranky old Victorian would not warm up no matter how high you set the thermostat. So you put on a couple of sweaters, your warmest and woolliest socks, and you crawl into bed under a down quilt and all the extra wool blankets you can steal from around the house.

After a few days, it warms up outside to an almost reasonable just-below-freezing temperature. Your house responds. It is now sixty-four degrees (heat still up to the max) but you can tough it out.

Wait another minute! What’s that funny smell?

Man of the House returns home from a trip and checks the oil burner. He calls the oil company. A logical, manly step that the little woman did not take. The flashlight-carrying guy with oil stained hands in the scruffy teal jacket drops by and takes a look.  Whoa! Many little things have gone awry. You immediately block them from your brain and cut to the bottom line. There’s a crack in the furnace. Oh, THAT explains the fine layer of soot you noticed seeping into every corner, graying the curtains, the walls, the moldings, and settling on top of each and every picture frame in each and every room. You stubbornly ignore it. It’s like living in New York City with the windows open you tell yourself. You can deal with it.

No you can’t.

You need a new furnace. And you need to insulate the mausoleum, the purchase of which was the biggest miscalculation you’ve made in your married life—for which mostly you are to blame. (Like Goldilocks, you’re still trying to get the size right.) So here you are with a heart full of regret and a white elephant that needs another huge influx of cash.

Now College Boy is pointing out a broken bit on the kitchen faucet. (That’s a new kitchen faucet, dammit.) The paint on the bathroom ceiling is starting to crack and curl and soon enough it will be gently cascading down like so many little snowflakes. The white slipcovers on your mother’s old furniture are beyond washing and restoring. You feel your life needs washing and restoring, too. Come to think of it, what

are

you doing with your life? Are you having identity crisis number nine hundred and ninety nine? Yes, you are.

This is the moment when you imagine walking out the door and never looking back. You envision a breezy little trailer on a deserted spit of beach where the sun often shines and the weather is always convenient.

Suddenly the deck of cards that is your life, the deck you so neatly and fastidiously stacked just so, starts to fall. You watch somewhat fascinated by the beauty of it. It winds and curls and you hear a faint flap flap flap as each card falls upon the next. It is not about the furnace. The furnace is simply the manifestation of a series of events gone wrong and they have taken you to this place, which at the moment, feels like it’s

all falling apart

.

There must be an upside to all this. You know there is. Think. Think.

Well, for one thing, people don’t change unless they have to. That’s a terrible truth, but it is a truth. Having a smackdown from your furnace or any other small to catastrophic event in your life can always be used to get your butt in gear.

Here’s another truth: when one door closes another door opens. Stupid platitudes are usually based on truth, so you shouldn’t ignore them just because they’re stupid platitudes. If you are too busy looking at the thing that’s falling apart you might not notice what’s opening up.

Notes to self, when things fall apart:

• Remember, you are the same person you were yesterday, before this mess.

• Fix what you can because, miraculously, some things can be fixed right away!

• Look for outside resources if you don’t have them yourself.

   (For instance, there are interest-free loans out there to cover heat emergencies)

• Think of a meltdown as an opportunity to make changes. They might be improvements.

• Limit self-pity to 15 minutes or one day, depending.

• Take a walk outside and breathe slowly. Do this as often as possible.

• Notice how, in nature, things are always falling apart and renewing. It’s normal.

• Allow yourself to not know the answer right away.

Make space for not knowing much of anything.

• It’s lonely out there in space. Make peace with that.

• Imagine a life that feels happy. Take notes.

• Sit quietly and breathe for several minutes at a time (aka meditation; let it be simple).

• When you can’t do anything about it, bake banana bread.

Espresso Banana Bread with Chocolate Covered Walnuts

I’ve been tinkering with banana bread for years. While this recipe is not health food by any means, it still contains some whole-wheat flour because I love the way it tastes with bananas. The idea of coating walnuts in chocolate comes from Jess Thomson at Hogwash (read her blog, you’ll like it.) I have finally gotten around to trying it, and lo and behold, it is easy and is indeed an epiphany. When baked in two pans, the loaves are somewhat flat, but in my book, that just adds to their homey feel. If you’re not careful you could down a half a loaf in no time. Save some to share with a friend.

Makes 2 small loaves

1/2 cup chopped bittersweet chocolate or chocolate chips (100 g)*

1 cup walnuts, broken in pieces (100g)*

3 to 4 ripe bananas

1 cup all-purpose flour (121g)

3/4 cup whole wheat flour (108 g)

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder  (7.35g)

1/2 teaspoon baking soda (2.5g)

1/4 teaspoon salt (1.7g)

1/2 teaspoon nutmeg (1g)

3/4 cup brown sugar (180g)

2 large eggs

1/4 cup butter (1/2 stick), melted (57g)

1/4 cup olive oil (55g)

2 teaspoons vanilla extract (8g)

1/2 sour cream or crème fraiche (121g)

1/4 cup brewed espresso (59g) or 1 heaping teaspoon instant espresso dissolved in 1 tablespoon water

1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with parchment or waxed paper. Butter and flour 2 small loaf pans (8-inches by 3 1/2-inches).

2. Melt the chocolate in a heatproof bowl over hot water or in the microwave at 30-second intervals. Stir the walnuts into the chocolate to coat them and spread them on the wax paper lined baking sheet so they are not touching. Refrigerate until firm while you make the batter.

3. Mash the bananas in a bowl with a potato masher or with the paddle attachment of a stand mixer.

4. In a separate bowl, whisk the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and nutmeg together.

5. Add the eggs, brown sugar, melted butter, walnut or olive oil, vanilla and sour cream to the bananas. Stir by hand with a whisk or with the paddle attachment of a stand mixer until well blended. Fold in the dry ingredients by hand until just blended.  Stir in the nuts.

6. Divide the batter between the loaf pans and bake for 40 to 50 minutes, until a toothpick poked into the center of a loaf emerges with only a few crumbs. Cool in the pans for 10 minutes and turn out on a rack to completely cool. Wrapped in plastic, the banana bread will keep for about 3 days at room temperature and can be frozen for up to 3 months.

*I haven't tried this, but you might consider using chocolate covered nuts (I think Trader Joe's has chocolate covered almonds.)

Note: You probably don’t want to eat bananas that are all speckly like this, but they are perfect for banana bread. When bananas are past their prime, FREEZE them for later: peel them and wrap them individually in plastic wrap. Pop them in a heavy-duty freezer bag and store them in the freezer until you are ready to use them. Defrost at room temperature or nuke them briefly in the microwave.

Blogging around:

Banana Bread (Simply Recipes)

Jess Thomson's Banana Bread (Hogwash)

Banana Cake (David Lebovitz)