Give a gift from heart - and kitchen

Most memorable holiday presents are often food

Food

December 03, 2006|By Sandra Pinckney

Christmas memories are tucked deep away in our consciousness for most of the year.

Then something happens.

The first snowfall, a favorite carol playing on the radio, a house lit up for Christmas ... and suddenly it hits. Those wonderful memories come flooding back. When it hits me, the first thing I want to do is dig out my favorite holiday CDs.

For starters, I like A Charlie Brown Christmas. It's light and fun and the perfect music for getting the storage boxes of Christmas stuff from the attic - decorations, strings of lights and ornaments.

In one of my crates, I came across a treasure of memories packed in a small white oblong box. It included a collection of the adorable little gifts my daughter made for me over the years: a reindeer made of clothespins. The little crooked clay heart ornament with a paper clip for a hanger. A ceramic handprint with her name scratched above it.

The box itself had its own memories. It once held my mother's homemade chocolate. She began making chocolates as a hobby, which quickly turned into a thriving business.

I remember one year trying to help her fill a big holiday order by packing boxes, shaped like Christmas trees, with chocolates.

Each chocolate had to be placed in a specific way for the box to close. My mother did it effortlessly. Me? I never got the knack of it.

We had so much fun that day. As I watched her zipping around the kitchen, I remember thinking how much I admired my mother - a beautiful homemaker, fearless in the kitchen and a successful chocolatier.

For most of us, cherished Christmas memories have nothing to do with shopping and all the hype associated with the season.

And yet too many people feel the need to spend money they cannot afford for things most folks will not remember or appreciate.

Just think of how many presents you have received that you have never used, worn or enjoyed.

But a memorable gift is often as close as your own kitchen.

Take a moment. What are the favorite foods of the people on your list? What could you create that they will appreciate and enjoy?

You'll get a special satisfaction knowing that you are giving a gift from your heart. You'll also be creating your own food tradition and you will save a lot of money.

I have chosen a variety of simple recipes that are bound to please just about everyone on your list.

Use your imagination when it comes to the packaging.

You can find all sorts of holiday tins, colorful cellophane wrapping paper and boxes especially designed for packing sweets at discount stores.

You can also choose containers that have multiple purposes like small ceramic planters, candy dishes or serving platters.

For the chocolate lovers on your list, I have a recipe for chocolate nut toffee. This one has the delicious crunch of toffee plus a layer of milk chocolate.

If you have never used a candy thermometer, don't be intimidated. Practice makes perfect. This is one delicious candy that you'll want to pack in small, airtight tins for an elegant gift.

Forget those too-sweet marshmallows you buy in the supermarket. Homemade marshmallows are simply amazing - with an almost creamy consistency. They are fun to make with kids and can keep for a month or longer if you keep them tightly covered.

You can add food coloring - pastel colors look best - and flavorings like peppermint or cherry. They taste great alone or in a cup of hot chocolate.

For fans of fruitcake, fruit-drop cookies are the perfect gift. They are fragrant, rich and colorful. Think of them as miniature fruitcakes. They make a beautiful presentation and look best gift-wrapped in cellophane so the colors show through.

A tin of cheese straws is another excellent gift. These are crunchy and spicy. Bake them in long strips or short ones. Just make sure you let them completely cool before storing in airtight tins.

For the folks on your list who like hot stuff, pickled peppers are easy. My grandfather would "put up" peppers from his garden every summer. This recipe reminds me of his. Find some interesting bottles and jars and fill them with red and green peppers, the colors of the season. They are wonderful with greens.

Christmas is the season of light, hope and peace. I hope these ideas inspire you to reclaim the holiday while creating food memories that will last a lifetime.

Sandra Pinckney is a former Baltimore TV journalist and host of "Food Finds" on the Food Network. We welcome your comments at unisun@balt sun.com.

Fruit-drop cookies

Makes 85 1 1/2 -inch cookies

1/2 cup butter or margarine at room temperature

1/2 cup packed brown sugar

1 egg

pinch of salt

2 tablespoons brandy or rum

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg

2 1/2 cups chopped walnuts or pecans

1 cup chopped pitted dates

1/2 cup red candied cherries

1/2 cup chopped green cherries

1/2 cup golden raisins

Preheat oven to 350.

Grease baking sheets.

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