Monday, December 1, 2014

Mixed Plate: Holi-DIY and Resource Guide

Well, it's official - it's December and you just can't escape the fact that THE HOLIDAYS ARE TOTALLY EFFING HERE (and they're calling from inside the house!). Nevermind the fact that Costco has been selling Christmas wrapping since August. I'm here to help you on this whirlwind of Holiday Madness by sharing my Jedi Master Wasabi DIY Gift-Making Tips, as well as a resource guide for where I purchase a lot of the base materials on the cheap. (Hint: the Interwebs.) So let's get crack-a-lackin' my little Elves and Elvises -- there's gifts to be made!

Gift wrapping - brought to you by Pinterest and being a scrap-hoarder - Photo by Wasabi Prime

Handmade gifts aren't just for budget-conscious gift-givers like myself, they're downright practical these days, as let's face it -- we all have more than enough stuff. Baked goods, bath/spa products -- gifts that get used versus taking up space on a shelf -- are all better options than the Shake Weights and Chia Pets that inevitably pile up in our landfills. And there's just something really nice about a handmade gift. I'd sooner take a plate of homemade cookies over some weird gadget or doo-dad dust collector. With a handmade gift, you're not just getting something unique, you're getting that person's time they spent, working on this special item. Or at least, that's what I tell myself, when I opt for handmade versus busting my credit card limit.

Vanilla extract - a DIY Oldie but Goodie - Photo by Wasabi Prime
Handmade Gift #1: Vanilla Extract
Yes, I've done this one before. It's an oldie-but-goodie, especially useful during the holidays, as people do their baking around this time of year, and if you time your gift-giving, you can be their baked goods savior by presenting them with a magical bottle of vanilla elixir, or they'll thank you the next time they bake something, because the holidays will have likely tapped-out their vanilla extract supply.

When the kitchen becomes a holiday gift factory - Photos by Wasabi Prime
And it's so super-simple: whole vanilla beans steeped in vodka and/or bourbon; set it and forget it. Packaged in a nice-looking, well-sealed bottle, wrap with some decorative ribbon/string and a stick-on label and you're good to go. This year I went with bulk buying for the vanilla beans and bottles. About two or three vanilla beans (sliced open to encourage the flavor-steeping) in 8 oz glass bottles filled with mid-range, super-distilled/clean vodka (Skyy or Fris is fine; get a bigger bottle than you think you need and buy it at 9am at the grocery store -- they love that), with some bourbon to add a little extra color, since this extract was starting from scratch. I already had a big bottle of vanilla extract that had been steeping for months -- it was practically opaque with vanilla-brown goodness. I added some of that to my gift bottles, just to kick up the flavor.

Doing all this a month or earlier before giving the vanilla extract is ideal, just to give the flavor time to develop. It's totally fine if you add a "Do Not Open Until 2015/Next Xmas" label on it, letting people know this is a gift in progress. Here's my sources for vanilla extract-making:
  • Specialty Bottle - I used the 8oz swingtop glass bottles
  • Beanilla - they have Madagascar Bourbon vanilla beans that you can buy in bulk

Another use for vanilla beans - Vanilla Salt! - Photos by Wasabi Prime
Handmade Gift #2: Vanilla Salt
Yes, vanilla salt -- it's totally a thing. The internet said it was. This is a gift designed for your more baking/cooking-savvy friends. It's just salt mixed with the vanilla bean seeds and pieces of the bean itself. Suggested uses are as a finishing salt on top of cookies, brownies, and other baked goods; sprinkled over caramel sauce on ice cream, and even mixed into savory sauces for things like roasted carrots or other naturally sweet veggies.

This is when your glass jar hoarding comes in handy. Come on, I'm not the only one who does this. I ransacked my cupboard and much to Mr. Wasabi's glee, used up the majority of my small glass jar collection/hoard. When making the vanilla salt, do about a 1 bean-to-1/2 cup salt ratio. More, if you want it extra vanilla-y and have the beans to spare. This is where buying the vanilla in bulk is handy, you don't feel wasteful chopping up beans and throwing them into a big pile of salt. As for the salt choice, I always keep a giant box of kosher salt handy, so I used that. Sea salt works, and if you want to get extra fancy, fleur de sel, sel gris, or Himalayan salt would all be beautiful options as well. A mix of the fancier salts with kosher salt would be lovely, but I'll save that idea for next Xmas.

Soothing bath sachets, made from your own garden - Photos by Wasabi Prime
Handmade Gift #3: Herbed Epsom Salt Bath Sachets
While we're on the subject of salt, how about epsom salts? Not edible, but a recipe for relaxation, to be sure. The need to utilize epsom salts came from last Christmas. We got a 50lb bag of epsom salts from a friend. No joke - FIFTY POUNDS. That's like, several babies, if they were made of epsom salts. Our friend bought a bulk order and shared the wealth. Brock uses epsom salts for soaking after a workout, and we were regularly buying the bulk boxes from Costco, but no need for that, at least for a while. You don't have to buy a 50 lb bag of epsom salts to make these wonderfully soothing herb bath sachets, you can usually buy a carton or bag of epsom salts for a few bucks in the pharmacy aisle of your grocery store.

I got the idea for bath sachets from -- of course -- the internet. You can look up "epsom salt bath sachet" on any search engine, but this how-to on The Happy Homemaker's blog is just dandy. That recipe uses lavender and oatmeal, a common combination. I opted for mint and rosemary only because our backyard plants were doing oddly well despite the chill, so I snipped the plants bare and used that, along with some dried orange peel and a few drops of essential bath oil. You can skip the essential oil if you don't have it handy, a strong-smelling herb like rosemary comes through quite nicely.

The reason why this is a sachet and not just aromatic bath salts is, you want to keep all this pleasant smelling goodness contained. I don't understand why anyone would throw in whole herbs, oatmeal and other stuff that could potentially clog up the drain. A double-layer of cheesecloth would work, or in my case: coffee filters. These things are my holiday savior this year. A pack of 200 for $2 at the grocery store -- short of the fresh herbs, you could get all the major components for this gift at Safeway.

I spooned about 2.5 heaping tablespoons in a small coffee filter, tied it up with cotton string, then wrapped it in another coffee filter and tied that off tightly, just to make it more sturdy. I used decorative cotton string to make a long tether, so that each sachet can hang from the faucet, like a tea bag, so that it can infuse the bath water. The whole thing is biodegradable, so you can toss it all in the compost pile when you're done. And even if you don't want to use it in the bath, they can hang in a closet or be placed in a drawer for sweet-smelling clothes and unmentionables.

The spice is right, Bob - Photos by Wasabi Prime
Handmade Gift #4: Individual Mulling Spice Bags
Coffee filters save the day for another DIY gift -- single-use mulling spices. The holidays are all about mulled cider and wine, the spicy-sweet, often boozy concoction that makes the house smell like Christmas and drink enough of it, and you're dancing on the table like a jolly old elf. Typically a party drink, what about if you just want one mug-ful of holiday cheer? Martha Freakin' Stewart to the rescue.

Totally got this idea from Martha Stewart -- her Mulling Sachets how-to was just what I needed. I had a bunch of whole spices like cloves and cardamom, and as wonderful as they are, it's use it or lose it, they don't last forever. Making little mulling spice sachets was the perfect way to make sure these spices were enjoyed properly. I filled out the flavor profile with buying bulk cinnamon sticks, candied orange peel and crystallized ginger. I had bulk bag of star anise from the local Asian grocer -- another great supply area for bulk spices at a good price.

Give yourself (and others) a glass of holiday cheer! - Photos by Wasabi Prime
I modded Martha's recipe -- one whole star anise per mulling sachet sounded like a brass knuckle punch in the face of licorice. No one wants that. I used the broken bits of star anise so it's just a hint of flavor, and added the ginger and orange peel for sweetness. You can do what you like, this was my customization choice. Also -- coffee filters to the rescue. Cheaper than cheesecloth and quickly attainable at the grocery store, you can still use cheesecloth or get empty tea bags at Uwajimaya or a specialty store if you want. I tied each coffee filter tightly with plain cotton string, then used decorative string -- baker's twine is great -- to make the long tether for when you're ready to mull that glass of hot cider or wine.

Here's my resource guide for ingredients:
  • Oh! Nuts - (yes, that's the name) for the dried fruit, also a great source for baking supplies
  • Beanilla - I bought the cinnamon sticks with the vanilla to get free shipping
It's all about the packaging, yo - Photos by Wasabi Prime
So you have a bunch of gifts, what are you going to do, just hand it over in a plastic bag? Hells no, you're gonna pretty that stuff up that you spent all that time DIY-ing. But no need to kill yourself or your budget over packaging your gift. I'm a big fan of Use What You Have -- old boxes, bags, saved scraps of ribbon and paper -- use it up! The extra coffee filters are great box liners for baked goods. If you're a tea tin-hoarder like me, just cover the old labels with pretty paper, they'll be perfect for holding the mulled spice bags. And plain brown kraft paper is your friend -- that gets easily dressed up with a nice ribbon.

My packaging must-haves are white address labels and plain brown food-safe boxes. Office supply stores sell those address labels in bulk -- you can customize the label describing the gift, the ingredients, or any instructions. If you get Avery labels, their site has a whole section of templates so you don't have to line up your designs by hand. The to-go boxes can be bought in bulk online for a good price; because they're food-safe, you can use them for your baked goods gifts, the bath sachets, and even send your holiday guests off with leftovers after a big meal. It's a handy item to have around, believe me.
  • Paper Mart - I got a bulk order of take-out boxes and decorative tissue paper, but they have tons of other good stuff as well
  • Pinterest - all packaging inspiration came from typing in "gift wrapping ideas" in the search box and collecting a ton of pins on a board to keep the ideas fresh
All this effort, all this fuss -- why do this?? Because for loved ones, we want them to know how special they are to us, and there really is an art to gift-giving. Make the DIY gifts an activity -- have a crafting party to make these items with a group, and their gift is whatever they make. Gifts aren't about how much money is spent, it's the thought that went into making something the recipient will use and appreciate. So keep your holidays merry and bright, don't stress too much about the season, and remember to give yourself the gift of time, to enjoy the season with loved ones.

Meaningful gifts are always ones from the heart - Photos by Wasabi Prime

1 comment:

  1. My sister-in-law made fantastic bath salts in glass jars with essential oils and epsom salts. With nine brothers and sisters and 28 nieces and nephews, that 50 pound bag would have been handy!


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