Last-Minute Homemade Holiday Gifts

I have to admit that I share Kim’s disdain for crafting, but each December I do enjoy playing a bit of Santa’s Workshop and making my own holiday cards, gift tags, baked goods, and sometimes even my own gifts. The gifts run the gamut depending on my inspiration and how much free time I have. In the past I’ve made scarves, ornaments, collages, and books, among other things. If you’re up for it and you plan it right, making your own gifts can save you money as well as time, since you don’t have to run around all over New York City (or your local mall) seeking out the perfect individual gift for each person on your list.

Last year I made chocolate truffles, spicy brown sugar pecans, and salted caramels, and they were a big hit. This year I think I’m going to make dark chocolate peppermint bark, English toffee, and shortbread cookies. Edible gifts can be an especially good option for friends or family members who are either food lovers or annoyingly difficult to buy for. They also make good hostess gifts. And the best thing about them is that you can whip them up right before the holidays when you’ve completed (or completely given up on) all of your other gift-finding missions!

CHOCOLATE TRUFFLES
This recipe makes about 2 dozen truffles the size of small ping pong balls. When you make the base, divide it into a few different bowls before flavoring each one with a unique extract, so you’ll have a variety. Last year, I used the vanilla extract for the truffles I rolled in coconut; peppermint for the ones I rolled in crushed candy canes; and almond extract for the ones I rolled in pistachios.

Ingredients

  • 2 cups bittersweet chocolate chips with at least 60% cacao
  • 2 teaspoons of a natural extract (e.g., vanilla, peppermint, lemon, orange, almond, etc.)
  • 2/3 cup organic whipping or heavy cream
  • Approximately 1/2 cup of topping to roll each type of truffle around in (e.g., shredded coconut, crushed candy canes, crushed toffee, finely chopped pistachios or almonds, cocoa powder, etc.)

Instructions

  1. Boil the cream in a double-boiler; add the chocolate and whisk until it is completely melted.
  2. Decide how many types of truffles you are going to make and pour the warm, creamy chocolate into that many bowls. If you’re making coconut, peppermint, and pistachio truffles like I did last year, you’ll need 3 bowls. Separate the chocolate into those bowls and whisk the corresponding extract into each one. Cover each bowl and let it chill for a few hours until the chocolate is firm.
  3. Pour the toppings (your shredded coconut, cocoa powder, nuts, etc.) into another set of bowls.
  4. When the chocolate is firm, use the tablespoon from your measuring spoons or a melon ball spoon to scoop the chocolate out of the bowls into relatively round little chunks. The next task is to roll the chunks into balls. You can do it with your bare hands, but the heat from your hands tends to melt the chocolate a little too quickly, so I recommend wearing a pair of dish gloves to do the rolling. Just rinse the gloves as you move on from one flavor to another so that you don’t end up with unintentional combinations like orange-mint.
  5. When the balls are done, roll them around in the toppings until they look pretty.

SPICY BROWN SUGAR PECANS
My friend, Jackie, made these for me a few Christmases ago, and I loved them so much that I started making my own every year.

Ingredients

  • 1 pound of pecan halves
  • 4 Tablespoons of unsalted butter
  • 1 teaspoon of sea salt
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 1/2 freshly grated ginger
  • 1/2 cup packed brown sugar (I prefer dark)
  • 2 Tablespoons of water

Instructions

  1. Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper.
  2. Mix the salt, cinnamon, and cayenne pepper together in a small bowl.
  3. Put the heat on medium and dump the nuts into a big cast iron skillet. Stir them around over the heat for a few minutes until they start toasting.
  4. Add the butter, and keep stirring the pecans until the butter is completely melted.
  5. Stir in the spice mixture.
  6. Stir in the grated ginger.
  7. Add the brown sugar and water, and keep stirring until everything is combined and the mixture begins to thicken and stick to the nuts.
  8. After a couple of minutes, pour the pecans out onto the parchment-papered pan. Spread them out and separate them, as necessary. When the nuts have completely cooled off, go ahead and put them into your chosen gift packaging. If you keep them in an air-tight container, they’ll be fine for a few weeks.

SALTED HONEY MOLASSES CARAMELS
I am one of those people who is totally obsessed with the combination of caramel and sea salt. If I see it iced onto a cupcake, frozen into gelato, or simply manifested in a candy, I must have it. Last year, I experimented with adding both molasses and honey into the mix with these scrumptious little homemade caramels, and I was really pleased with the results.

Ingredients

  • 1 cup of organic whipping or heavy cream, warmed
  • 2 cups of brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup of honey
  • 1/4 cup of molasses
  • 8 Tablespoons of butter (salted of course!), sliced and warmed to room temperature
  • 1 Tablespoon of coarse sea salt, or more to taste (I like using fancy red, brown, or black salts and I also prefer salts with granules that are slightly smaller than standard coarse sea salts)

You’ll also need a candy thermometer.

Instructions

  1. Pour the sugar and then the honey and molasses into a big nonreactive pot (ceramic, enamel, or stainless steel). I use my Le Creuset stock pot. Set the heat to medium and let the sweet stuff do its thing without disturbing or stirring it.
  2. If you haven’t already warmed the cream, warm it up, but don’t allow it to get to a boil.
  3. When the sweets are all melty and caramelized, whisk in the warm slices of butter until the mixture is smooth. Add the warm cream, and whisk some more. Finally, let the caramel cook until it hits 260º F on your candy thermometer (125º C).
  4. Pour the caramel out onto either a silicone baking mat or a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. Take your tablespoon of salt and sprinkle some of it with your fingers over the cooling caramel. Let the caramel cool into a thin slab. Roll the slab into a long blob and slice pieces off. Roll those pieces into caramel “worms” and cut them down to desired size. Sprinkle a bit of the remaining salt over the finished caramels, to taste. Wrap them up in parchment paper, and twist at the ends.

A NOTE ABOUT PACKAGING
I am big on presentation (and not so big on plastic), so I like to package my foodstuffs in glass. Here in NYC, I usually go to Fish’s Eddy because they have so many cute glassware items to choose from, but you could also order some glass storage containers from Amazon or pick them up at your local housewares store.

2 Comments

  1. Kim says:

    I’ve been the lucky recipient of Jen’s truffles and can vouch for their deliciousness. Jen, I’m going to make these for a New Year’s Eve party. Thanks for the recipe!

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