But sometimes a holiday gift with a handmade quality can mean just as much--or at least convince your friends that, yes, you do have some skills in the kitchen.
Earlier in the year we asked our readers for their favorite gifts of food, and the responses came pouring in. Here are the best of them. While they may not have the drama (or monetary value) of a diamond ring, there are some real gems among them.
After all, at a time when all things homey are in, who wouldn't gush over a jar of homemade pickles? And if anyone looked disappointed opening a tin of nuts candied on your home stove, then surely the Grinch has been called in.
Cynthia Smith of Venice began making her Savory Almonds at least 20 years ago from a recipe she thinks was clipped from The Times. That was at a time in her life when she was unemployed and didn't have a lot of money but still wanted to give holiday gifts. The Santa Monica farmers market had just opened, and she discovered big bags of almonds. Now try going a Christmas without them in her family. Smith's gifts of almonds have seen her through thick and, now, the return of thin. She recently was laid off by her Silicon Valley employer.
It's hard to imagine a better return on your time. None of these recipes takes more than an hour's work (the nut recipes are put together in only five minutes). And once you start giving gifts of food, you can't stop--or you'll hear about it.
Michaela Rosenthal of Woodland Hills is practically ordered by her bingo group to bring her Chewy Ginger-Sour Cherry Biscotti to their dessert table every year. And she's been making her Chocolate Pecan Turtles for 20 years. "These presents not only reflect the personality of the giver, they tend to make the receiver feel extra special," Rosenthal says.
For the last several years, Eloise Tolar of Ontario has been making four kinds of flavored walnuts-minted, spiced, honey-candied and sherried--for her gifts every year. (Minted and spiced are presented here.)
"This is new to me. Now that I'm retired and the kids are grown, I have time to make them," she says of the nuts, made from her mother's "Diamond Walnut Favorite Recipes" recipe book. She enjoys planning how to wrap them, and this year is considering even more recipe variations.
If this is your first go-round making food gifts, it's a good idea to start simple. But even the jams and chutneys can be made by a beginning cook. They only take a bit of extra effort when it comes to sealing them in jars.
One recipe, from Dorothy Rose of Victorville, whose daughter urged her to share it, is for Refrigerator Pickles. They're just stored in the refrigerator; no canning required. She makes them with red bell peppers and green pickling cucumbers for Christmas, then switches to yellow bell peppers for Easter.
Once you get a few Christmases under your belt, gifts of food become second nature. Johanna Roe of Newport Beach has been cooking and canning her Cranberry Jam since the mid-1970s when a neighbor shared the recipe; it is now Christmas tradition. "It's always enjoyed by all who receive it as it's so much a part of the holiday season," she says. "And it's so easy to make!"
When people taste the Maryland Relish that Phyllis Soza of Altadena has prepared the last 10 Christmas seasons, they always say the same thing: "I haven't had any of this since my grandmother made it." Could be; she got the green tomato and cabbage relish from an old church cookbook.
For Christy Cowell of Los Angeles, gratification comes after the jars of her Cranberry Sage Chutney are empty. "My friends who receive it every year have said that it doesn't last long enough," she says. She usually decorates the jars of the chutney, made from a New York magazine recipe clipped years ago, with Victorian-style canning labels and Christmas fabric cut to fit like bonnets.
Of course, once the chutney jar or pickle jar is empty, your friends are going to come back for more. And that's gratifying too. In this way, it really is better to give than to receive. As Smith, the nut-maker from Venice, says "It's that whole spirit of Christmas thing."
Preserving the Perishable Present
Follow these canning and sealing steps for the Cranberry Sage Chutney, Maryland Relish and Cranberry Jam.
Make sure you have clean jars and rims and fresh lids that have never been used. Dip every jar and lid (as well as any other implements that will touch the finished jam) into a large pot of boiling water for at least 3 minutes. Remove them to a baking sheet and keep them in a 250-degree oven until ready to use.