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Pot luck gifts from the kitchen: Designing gifts for hungry friends

Gifts of love from your very own kitchen, including oatmeat squares, PB&C brownies and Far East party mix.

If you haven't done so already, now's the time to decide what gifts you're going to provide for family, friends, neighbors and the like.

Food is always a good idea. Mainly because it's disposable, so nobody has to find a place to hang it, display it or store it.

Besides which, a gift of food can show a great deal of thoughtfulness on your part. That's because you'll undoubtedly take into account your givee's likes and dislikes — not to mention their allergies: nuts, dairy, gluten (all the rage these days) and/or all of the above.

Your edible gift can be store-bought, of course. Either locally or from one of the myriad food-gift purveyors whose catalogs have undoubtedly clogged your mailbox by now. But, our exercise du jour is for those who like to present a gift of love from their very own kitchens.

Our focus this time is on holiday food gifts that don't include cookies. Not that there's anything wrong with cookies, but if you're in the mood to try something different, here are some ideas which are designed for those nearest and dearest to us who don't suffer from food allergies.

Oatmeal squares

If you've decided to go beyond cookies this season, perhaps an assortment of various squares/brownies appeals. These yummy squares go well beyond plain old oatmeal, and include coconut and chocolate chips.

You can make them a few days ahead, cool them thoroughly, cut them into squares and wrap tightly in plastic, then foil. Refrigerate until you're ready to package them pretty for presentation.

Those holiday cookie tins you've collected over the years can also contain your alternate gifts.

Softened butter, for baking pans

2 cups old-fashioned rolled oats

1 cup (all-purpose) flour

1 cup packed dark brown sugar

1/2 cup each, milk chocolate and semisweet chocolate chips

1 cup sweetened flaked coconut

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 stick, plus 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted, cooled

2 large eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Line 2 (9-inch) square baking pans with 14-inch-long sheets of aluminum foil, letting excess foil hang over edges. Butter foil in pans.

In a large bowl, toss together oats, flour, brown sugar, chocolate chips, coconut, baking powder and salt. In another bowl, whisk together melted butter, eggs and vanilla. Add egg mixture to oat mixture.

Stir until egg mixture is well incorporated, but don't overdo it.

Divide batter between baking pans, distributing it evenly in each pan. Bake until set, about 25 minutes, switching pans on shelves in oven about halfway through baking time. Test for doneness with a toothpick inserted in center: It should come out clean, with perhaps a few crumbs attached.

Remove pans from oven. Remove squares from pans to cooling racks, using foil to lift from pans. Cool completely before cutting each pan of squares into 16 pieces, for 32 squares total.

PS, If keeping the squares a few days before giving as gifts, don't cut them into (smaller) squares until you're ready to package them.

PB&C brownies

PB&C stands for peanut butter and chocolate, and butter and peanuts. These sensuous (if you think of food as being sexy) frosted squares are replete with virtually all the allergens: flour, two kinds of chocolate, peanuts, peanut butter … mmm.

You can make these a couple of days ahead, wrap in waxed paper, then foil and refrigerate until ready to cut and package.

Brownies:

1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, plus additional softened butter for pan

6 ounces milk chocolate, chopped

4 ounces unsweetened chocolate, chopped

1 1/2 cups sugar

1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1/4 teaspoon salt

4 large eggs, at room temperature

1 cup (all-purpose) flour

1 cup roasted, salted peanuts, coarsely chopped

Topping:

1 cup chunky peanut butter (not "natural" or old-fashioned)

1 stick unsalted butter, at room temperature, divided

Three-fourths cup powdered sugar

1/8 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 tablespoon half and half (or use whole milk)

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

7 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped

For brownies, heat oven to 325 degrees. Line a 13-by-9-by-2-inch baking pan with 20-inch piece of foil, leaving an overhang on both ends. Butter foil in pan.

In a large, heavy saucepan, over low heat, add the 1 1/2 sticks butter and both chocolates. Stir until melted and smooth.

Remove from heat. Whisk in sugar, vanilla and salt. Then whisk in eggs, one at a time.

Fold in flour, then chopped peanuts. Spread into prepared pan and bake in center of oven for about 30 minutes, until tester inserted in center comes out with moist crumbs attached.

Remove pan from oven. Use foil overhang to remove brownies from pan to a cooling rack. Cool completely before topping.

For topping, in a medium bowl, with electric mixer, beat peanut butter and 1/4 cup butter (half a stick) to blend. Add powdered sugar, salt and cinnamon, and beat well. Beat in half and half, and vanilla.

Spread mixture on top of brownies.

In a small pan, over low heat, stir together, the remaining 4 tablespoons (half a stick) of unsalted butter and the 7 ounces bittersweet chocolate until smooth. Dollop chocolate mixture over brownies, then spread evenly to cover peanut butter topping.

Chill until set, about 1 and a half hours. Cut into 30 squares; or wrap well, refrigerate, then cut into squares when ready to package for presentation.

Far East party mix

We have a friend who's allergic to chocolate and caffeine. For her and for those dear ones who may actually prefer a salty treat over a sweet one, here's a take-off on the classic party mix that includes elements with an Asian influence.

The mix can easily be made quite a bit ahead, then kept in airtight containers at room temperature until you're ready to package for gifting. Better keep them hidden from the snackers in the house.

4 cups each, corn and rice cereal squares (read Chex)

4 cups broken pieces of sesame flavored rice crackers

2 cups teeny-tiny pretzels or pretzel sticks, broken

1 1/4 cups wasabi peas

1/2 cup each, lightly salted dry-roasted peanuts, and lightly salted almonds (regular or smoked)

1 stick (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter

2 tablespoons sugar

2 tablespoons curry powder

2 tablespoons reduced-sodium soy sauce

2 teaspoons white wine Worcestershire sauce

1 teaspoon each, garlic powder and ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon (or less) cayenne pepper

Cooking spray

Heat oven to 200 degrees. Spray-coat 2 jelly roll pans, i.e. baking sheets with sides.

In a very large bowl (or big cooking pot), combine corn and rice cereal squares, broken sesame rice crackers, pretzels, wasabi peas, peanuts and almonds.

In a small saucepan, over medium, melt the stick of butter. Whisk in sugar, curry powder, soy sauce, Worcestershire, garlic powder, ground cumin and cayenne. Pour butter mixture over cereal mixture, tossing gently to coat all ingredients.

Spread mixture on prepared pans. Bake for 45 to 50 minutes, switching pans on shelves halfway through baking time.

Remove to wire racks to cool. Cool completely before packaging in airtight containers.

Makes about 16 cups.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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