A gift from the kitchen also is a gift from the heart.
They've always had economy on their side, but festive edibles also can save time spent slogging through stores looking for the perfect presents. Local culinarians suggest simple recipes made with high-quality ingredients and attractively packaged for the most gratifying gifts.
"It feels better to give something that you've made," says Alyssa Warner, owner of Fresco Mobile Kitchen catering.
Candies and confections are predictable palate-pleasers, with truffles an obvious starting point, say Warner and other local bakers. Melt some chocolate with cream and roll the resulting ganache into balls, then maybe in nuts, a cocoa-spice mixture or even unconventional herbs, like rosemary, says cooking instructor Sue Cary.
"Be creative and be courageous ... because your family's gonna love it."
The types of ingredients make all the difference, say Cary and baking-supplier retailer Rebecca Hill. Using bulk melting chocolate imported from Belgium or France is more expensive than chocolate chips, but it doesn't contain waxes and other additives found in common, grocery-store products.
"A lot of people think chocolate's chocolate," says Hill, who owns Sweet Stuff in downtown Medford.
"Use fresh, whole ingredients and the best you can afford," says Cary.
The chocoholics on a cook's list also would love chocolate bark, even easier than truffles. Just spread melted chocolate onto a sheet pan, sprinkle with other goodies, allow to harden and then break it up for packaging. White chocolate-peppermint bark is a perennial favorite, says Hill.
"This time of year, we are selling so much candy-making supplies."
Disposal baking pans, patterned paper liners and even mini cheesecake and tartlet pans also have enjoyed a run at Sweet Stuff, she says. Mini loaves of quick breads are popular gifts this year, she adds. To use paper pans, simply place them on a baking sheet and bake as normal. When completely cooled, wrap the item in plastic wrap or a clear bag tied with a bow.
Plenty of edible gifts don't even reqiure turning on the oven or stove. Compound butters blended with herbs and citrus, herb-flavored vinegars, barbecue rubs, cheesecloth spice sachets for mulled wine or wassail and flavored popcorn all were ideas Cary brought to her "Gifts From the Kitchen" class Nov. 8 at Rogue River Lodge. Plain, popped corn also doubles as packaging material instead of Styrofoam for shipping gifts, she says.
"It's a wonderful cushion."
Warner also is full of ideas for no-cook gifts posted to her Fresco blog, http://blog.alsfresco.com. She likes to make vanilla and lemon extracts in pretty bottles by steeping vanilla beans or lemon peel in vodka. Start them now, and they'll be ready to use by Christmas.
Her version of chocolate-hazelnut spread based on a recipe found online only requires some measuring and switching on the blender. Although hazelnut oil can he hard to find and expensive, a jar of the sweet spread costs less than $3 and contains just a few high-quality ingredients compared with the less healthful, commercially made version.
"It tastes the same, but it tastes better," says Warner. "It's very easy and something you wouldn't think of."
If you don't want to make your own from the recipe on this page, Warner plans to sell it Saturday, Dec. 3, at the Griffin Creek Elementary School craft bazaar, hosted from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Reach Food Editor Sarah Lemon at 541-776-4487 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.