INSTEAD OF STUFFING a stocking why not stuff a holiday gift basket? A customized gift basket can be packed with homemade or store-bought treats and, best of all, they don't have to cost a fortune.
Putting together a basket takes some legwork. You'll need a basket or other container, padding, and the contents. If tracking down just the right bottle of wine and perfect fruit is too much for you, there are numerous firms that will do it for you.
Contents can be as simple as a stop at your local grocery store. Grab a small brie, some fancy crackers, apples, flavored mustards and you've got a great gift -- for under $10. A bottle of inexpensive champagne -- Tott's makes some good ones for about $7 -- could be added. Batches of your favorite homemade treats would be appreciated.
Luxury touches like real glasses and cloth napkins, as well as an attractive basket, are what make a spectacular gift, according to Terry Berry and Grace Durso. They operate Country Breakfast Baskets in Riverside in Harford County at 410-272-3954. Their baskets, for about $45, include gourmet cheeses and fresh-baked breads. The women also include a split of champagne with fresh orange juice to create two delectable mimosas.
Durso says she always includes a small bouquet of fresh flowers in her 17-inch round wicker baskets. One of her favorite finds is real champagne glasses for only $1 each at discount stores such as The Dollar Mart.
The pros at Harry and David, one of the first companies to send baskets through the mail, 800-345-5655, say the most important step is to choose your basket or other container carefully. The size of the basket should determine the contents. Don't try to over-stuff a small basket.
IKEA White Marsh and Pier One stores have good selections of reasonably priced baskets. Also, don't forget second-hand stores, dime stores or your basement. Spray paint, -- gold is nice -- can give new life to a homely basket.
And you don't have to use a basket. Large tin cans -- potato chip size or larger -- also work well. The outlet shop at the Independent Can Co. in the Riverside Industrial Park in Harford County 410-272-5122 sells huge, beautiful 6 1/2 gallon cannisters for $7.50 -- the most expensive item in the outlet shop. Less-than-perfect cans, called seconds, are just $3.75. More practical 3 1/2 -gallon cannisters, are $5.70 if perfect, $3 if less so. A variety of seasonally decorated cans, including some lovely Christmas tins, are available.
Cathy McClelland, who runs the outlet store, says she buys one pound cans, $1.60 perfect, and fills them with snacks from the supermarket bulk food section. This makes a useful and inexpensive gift. One pound of pretzels, for example, was selling in a Bel Air store for just $1.19. Corn chips were $1.29 and cheese corn curls just $1.69. Got a sweet tooth? Hershey kisses and Reeses' peanut butter cups, wrapped in Christmas-colored foils, were both $2.99 a pound.
The outlet store is open today, Friday and Saturday from 9:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Cash and checks only. After Christmas, the store will be open every Wednesday only.
Sutton Place Gourmet in Pikesville 410-484-5501 stuffs large tins with party fare -- perfect for Superbowl games. A tin might include foreign beers, popcorn, dips and flavored mustards.
Leslie Udoff creates the basket gifts at Sutton Place Gourmet. She advises do-it-your-selfers to choose the contents with an eye for different colors, sizes and textures.
To get a professional look, Udoff says, start with plenty of filler, such as crumpled cellophane or tissue paper. Some companies, like Harry and David, use rubber cushions custom-made for each container.
Here are some more basket tips from Udoff.
* Place the tallest, heaviest items, for example a bottle of wine, in the back. Work your way forward in descending levels so that all items show. Make depressions in the filling and nest the items in place.
* Cover the remaining surface of the basket with fruit, mounding it slightly in the center, pyramid fashion.
* Place remaining items on top, such as cheese or crackers. The basket should look balanced.
* Fill in any spaces with small, individually-wrapped items such as chocolates.
* Finally, take a large sheet of cellophane and wrap it around the basket, bunching up the ends and tying with a ribbon.
Here are some ideas for gift basket foods. Be sure to wrap each food securely. Udoff sometimes places firm foods, like chocolates, in the center of a large square of cellophane. She then gathers the ends together and ties it with a ribbon.
Crispy Snack Mix
1/2 cup chow mein noodles
1 1/2 cup sesame snack sticks
1 1/2 cups salted cashews
1/4 cup butter or margarine, melted
1/4 cup soy sauce
1 1/2 teaspoons garlic salt