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Make your own delicious gifts

Cookies (Photo provided by Yvona Fast)

Thanksgiving came and went with smaller-than-usual gatherings. Now it’s the season of Advent, when we get ready for Christmas.

Most years, December is full of Christmas parties, concerts and cookie exchanges. We visit crowded shops and malls to buy gifts. On Christmas, families gather together and those gifts are exchanged. But this year there are no concerts, few (if any) parties, and family gatherings are smaller.

To avoid interacting with others in crowded shops, many will shop online. But there is another way: Make your gifts. A century ago, most holiday gifts were crafted by hand: knitted gloves and hats, carved wooden toys, handmade dolls, candies and baked treats.

Homemade gifts are special — and many things we normally buy can be easily made. They can be beautiful, like a hand-stitched quilt — or simple, like a plate of home-baked cookies. It is wonderful to see that joy in the face of the recipient who realizes the gift has been made especially for them.

Many people think making gifts is difficult and time-consuming. But this is not true! It can take less time to make simple gifts than to shop at the mall. The whole family can help. Rather than rushing madly around a crowded mall, spend quality time with family making gifts.

Homemade jams and jellies (Photo provided by Yvona Fast)

From finished products like homemade candy, tins of cookies or pans of quick breads to do-it-yourself starter kits for soup, muffins or apple crisp, there is no limit to what you can make in your own kitchen. Some things, like infused vinegars, oils and liqueur, require time to age, while other delectable treats can be prepared just a few days before the holiday.

Make sure the gift fits the recipient. Is the person a movie buff? Fill a large jar with popcorn kernels and add a seasoning mix. Is he or she a snow lover? Whip up soup in a jar or a dry hot cocoa mix to warm up with after a winter outing. Homemade vanilla bean syrup is perfect for the coffee connoisseur on your gift list. Herb-infused vinegars make an attractive gift that fits almost anyone’s diet plan. Herb-seasoned salts make a nice gift for the gourmet. A homemade pancake or muffin mix will fit in almost any home.

Know their dietary needs, likes and dislikes. Don’t give hot sauce to someone who doesn’t like spicy food or spiced nuts to someone with a nut allergy. But there’s such a wide variety of things to make that you’re bound to find something that fits each individual!

Remember that food is perishable; keep timing and packaging in mind. Metal or plastic containers can help keep baked goods fresh longer. Make sure the item doesn’t need refrigeration if you need to ship it. Attach a label specifying how soon it should be used and how long it can keep.

Use festive containers to package your gifts. Jars are great for pickles, jams, seasoning mixes or sauces. These can be decorated with holiday ribbons. Bright ribbons come in many colors and sizes, and add a special touch when wrapped around bottles and boxes. Parchment paper works well for wrapping quick breads; it is both pretty and practical. Colored holiday ribbons can make it look like a boxed gift. Cloth bags or clear plastic bags are an option for nuts, candy or cookies. Metal tins are available at hardware stores; these are good for cookies and other items. Peanuts or other shelled nuts can replace Styrofoam peanuts when mailing.

Cocoa Dusted Almonds (Photo provided by Yvona Fast)

Not a cook? Local maple syrup, cheese, craft beer, wine or candy make nice gifts.

Cocoa Dusted Almonds

Ingredients:

2 cups raw almonds

1 Tablespoon cooking oil

3 Tablespoons cocoa powder (NOT hot chocolate mix)

2 Tablespoons confectioner sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

Directions:

Preheat oven to 300 degrees F.

Place almonds in large, shallow bowl. Drizzle with olive oil. Mix with your hands until almonds are coated. Transfer to colander to drain any excess oil. Return to bowl.

In a small bowl, mix together cocoa, sugar and salt. Sprinkle almonds with the mixture, and toss until all the almonds are lightly coated. Do this by using a rubber spatula and turning the almonds several times until they are coated. You will need to turn them at least 10 times to adequately coat them.

Cover 2 baking sheets with parchment paper, and transfer the almonds to them. They should be spaced in a single layer.

Bake 15 to 20 minutes to toast them. When they’re done, you will be able to smell the almonds.

Makes 2 cups.

Cool and store in a container with a tight lid.

Fruit Crisp Mix

Ingredients:

1 cup rolled oats

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 cup brown sugar

2 teaspoons cinnamon

1 teaspoon ground cloves

1 teaspoon ground nutmeg

Mix ingredients together in a jar. This makes enough for a 9-by-13-inch pan or 2 smaller 9-inch fruit crisps.

For the recipe:

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Butter the baking pan.

Prepare fruit (peel, core, slice) and arrange in bottom of pan. Drizzle with a little lemon juice and honey, if desired.

Melt 1 cup of butter over low heat.

Place contents of jar in a bowl. Stir in melted butter and mix with a fork.

Sprinkle over the fruit in the pan.

Bake 25 to 45 minutes, until topping is brown and fruit is soft and cooked.

Holiday Cranberry Nut Muffin Mix

A healthy, whole-grain holiday treat

Ingredients:

1 cup oats

1/2 cup dried cranberries

1/2 cup chopped walnuts

2/3 cup whole wheat flour

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

1 Tablespoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/3 cup brown sugar

Directions:

In a small bowl, sift or blend the all-purpose flour, salt, and baking powder. Set aside

Pour ingredients into decorative jar in this order:

Oats, cranberries, nuts, whole wheat flour, all-purpose flour sifted or blended with baking powder and salt, brown sugar.

Seal jar and decorate; write out directions for the recipient and attach.

For the recipe to accompany the jar:

2 eggs

1 cup milk

1/4 cup cooking oil

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Prepare muffin tins by lining with paper wrappers, spraying with cooking spray or spreading with butter.

In a bowl large enough to hold contents, beat eggs with rotary beater. Beat in milk, then oil. With a wooden spoon, gently stir in the mix ingredients. When blended, divide mixture among 12 prepared muffin cups. Bake at 350 degrees for 20 to 25 minutes, until toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

Author of the award-winning cookbook “Garden Gourmet: Fresh & Fabulous Meals from your Garden, CSA or Farmers’ Market,” Yvona Fast lives in Lake Clear and has two passions: cooking and writing. She can be reached at yvonawrite@yahoo.com or on Facebook at Words Are My World.

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