Wednesday, December 14, 2011

UnRecipe: Tips for Holiday Baked Gifts

I realize we're only at the halfway point of December, and Christmas isn't for a couple of weeks, but if you're on true Holiday Time, you know it's the home stretch for getting gifts prepared and mailed off or ready to give away at the next holiday party. By the time the dwindling days of December's early twenties hit and Christmas Eve is just around the corner, I hate to say it, your holiday goose is cooked since a lot of online stores may not be able to guarantee Dec. 25th delivery and if the malls seemed crazy before, they'll be like a cracked-out madhouse by then. So, why not keep things simple and consider something handmade and edible. Like Wasabi Mom would always say, Food Always Fits.

Tis the season to take over the kitchen with cookies - Photo by Wasabi Prime

It's gotten more difficult to buy things for people over the years. Personal interests change, priorities get shuffled with new jobs/babies/life as a whole, and for most of our friends and family, we're in that stage of "no more stuff, please." We have all the things we really need, and frankly, so many people are looking to simplify their life by cutting back on the objects that eventually become clutter. But holiday gifts are all about showing appreciation, a token of love and gratitude for the person being important in our lives, so why not get into the true holiday spirit and shower them with sweets and junk food we'll all be swearing off in the new year? Pull out that rolling pin and unholy amounts of butter -- it's time to get baking!

Dress your cookies up for the holidays to make 'em feel special - Photos by Wasabi Prime

Homemade baked goods as gifts don't have to be fancy. If anything, the simpler the better, if you're making large batches of gifts to give away. I've gone through my phases of doing complicated confections like layered petit fours with fancy-schmancy icing, holiday-shaped sugar cookies that took more time to decorate than bake, and any number of ideas I saw on Martha Stewart's site that inevitably brings up the, "Oh, that's a good idea," lightbulb in my head and I'm up till 2am, just trying to get a single batch of something completed. I've gotten to the point where I look for simple cookie recipes where the dough is very basic and easy to double or triple batches, and keep the decorating simple, but colorful. The cupcake fad has brought more confectionary elements to the basic grocery store aisles, so I've been able to find little pearlized sugar dragĂ©e decorations, along with sanding sugars in gold and silver. Instead of going to the high-end specialty shops, I often find large containers of colorful sanding sugars at discount stores like Ross or Marshalls, where they have small kitchen sections. The decorative sugars are dry goods and have a fairly long shelf life, so I often buy my supplies after the holidays and just keep them in the pantry for the following year. I probably use the plain, large crystallized sugar the most for baking projects year-round, so if you're only going to get one item, that would be the most useful.

Best tip for baking cookies for gifts? Keep it simple! - Photo by Wasabi Prime

I stuck with the simple sugar bonbon cookie recipe from the CakeSpy book. It was small and jewel-like with some sprinkles on it, you stuff each cookie with bits of chocolate or nuts for a sweet surprise, and it was easily made in multiple batches since you use a little cookie scoop tool to get the shape nice and round. If you're making about three or four batches of something, this is the recipe for success. Once they're baked, it's all about packaging them to finish them off so that they feel very precious and gift-like.

Cookies with a sweet surprise and how packaging makes all the difference - Photos by Wasabi Prime

Little celophane cookie bags are your friend during the holidays. You can get printed ones or clear bags, and while they come with handy wire twist-ties, I like using those and then tying some ribbon or strips of cloth to really make it feel like a little gift. The bags come in bulk, and you can either buy them online or if you're in the Seattle area, my favorite store for getting packaging is the aptly-named Packaging Specialties store in Bellevue. They have cardboard boxes of all shapes and sizes and many have the clear, food-friendly coating on the inside, if you're putting something rich like brownies in them, and don't want the food oils to soak through. Get some ribbon or strips of decorated paper to make a simple band around the boxes and finish off with an address lable seal, writing what the item is. You don't really need wrapping paper, and probably shouldn't, as you want the recipients to know right away it's a food gift, so eat immediately. Another way of packaging food to make it feel extra-special is using glass jars. You can get large canning jars in bulk, or if you're only getting a few, nose around antique or secondhand stores -- there's often inexpensive vintage glass jars that make for great presentation. A quick run through the dishwasher, fill it with a favorite treat or snack, and then put a nice bow around the top -- it becomes a special gift, as well as a unique cookie jar for future use.

Along with cookies, I made some quick candy treats. Caramel popcorn is surprisingly easy and fast. I bought a jar of popcorn kernels and popped about three or four batches' worth of plain popcorn over the stove in a large lidded pot. I was careful to remove as many of the "old maids" as possible, to keep people from cracking teeth on seeds, and set the popcorn aside to cool while making batches of caramel. I had a basic recipe for caramel corn, but added extra flavor by putting in some cayenne pepper and cinnamon, which gave it a nice spicy sweetness. I did have one caramel casualty -- I was multitasking too many things and let the caramel sit on the stove for too long, and burned one batch. Caramel sauce down!! But it was a good lesson to not take your eyes off cooking sugar, not even for a second. Once I had a few ample piles of caramel corn popped and cooled, I stored them in large freezer bags until I could fill the individual gift bags for the final presentation. As you can see from the photo below, our house becomes like a food factory, with a few days devoted to making the sweets and then another day devoted to packaging everything up for the dozen or so people who get sweets as gifts. But it's totally true when they say packaging is everything -- if you go through the effort of making something special, it should be presented like a treasure, no?

Welcome to Santa's Village, aka, our dining room table - Photo by Wasabi Prime

I think variety is what makes baked gifts more interesting. Instead of giving a hefty bag of the same cookie, I'd rather give smaller portions of different things. So far I had cookies and caramel popcorn, so my last item was a riff on the old favorite, peppermint bark. I had done the classic peppermint bark in the past -- melting white and dark chocolate, layering on a tray and sprinkling with crushed peppermint candies. It's a pretty and simple presentation, but I wanted to do something different. The combo of chocolate and peanut butter is a favorite, so I did a layer of melted peanut butter chips mixed with white chocolate, then a layer of milk chocolate and a hefty sprinkle of crushed almonds to finish.  I also did an all-chocolate version, using a layer of melted dark chocolate sprinkled with dried cranberries, crushed pistachios and a sprinkling of a smoky finishing salt. They're so intensely sweet, it's fine to give small amounts of each one. They show nicely in clear bags, so I divided the broken-up shards of two different candy bark and labeled accordingly.

Bark if you love holiday bark! And tons of SUGAR!! - Photos by Wasabi Prime

This sounds like a wild and crazy undertaking, but by no means do you have to go this route of Holiday Baking Gone Wild. The point is to pick time-tested recipes that you're comfortable with and spending a little extra effort on packaging the finished goods. By making multiple things, it keeps the gift interesting, and I hope the recipients enjoy the variety as well. Since many of these had to be mailed, I chose items that weren't particularly delicate, since most of these treats would be sent off in boxes, tossed about every which way. Sturdiness is another Prime-Approved baked goods rule, so consider that as you're choosing cookie recipes.

As the pre-Christmas days dwindle, consider skipping the mall to get someone yet another piece of clutter they'll wonder what to do with, and just make them something sweet to show your appreciation!

1 comment:

  1. This PB bark is such a great idea! I'm currently starting a list of sweets to make in the next two days for the dude and I to eat throughout our lazy weekend at home. The bark is going on that list right now.


Commentary encouraged. Fresh baked cookies, super-encouraged. (hit the 'post comment' button twice, sometimes it's buggy)