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Orange and pomegranate tea can be bottled and given as a holiday gift. [Greg Wohlford/Erie Times-News]

Jennie Geisler: Food gifts come from the heart

As much as I love Christmas shopping (online only, from my favorite chair, beverage within reach, preferably wearing pajamas), I would rather play around in the kitchen and fill baskets with yummies to give away.

Of course, my plans are always bigger than my time frames, but I usually get a few things done, swearing next year I’ll do it all. It’s happening again, incidentally. If I had off the rest of the year, I wouldn’t be able to do it all. But it’s fun to think about anyway.

I found a few things that make nice gifts for a variety of giftees. Nothing went according to plan, but it would frighten me if it had. If you’re looking for something to slip into a basket or tiny bag for coworkers, these ideas might work, or inspire you to fantasize about what you’ll be able to get done in the next, gulp, five days.

5 things I learned:

1. The Winter Orange Pomegranate Iced Tea was deep Christmas red in the picture and I thought it would look lovely in a clear, fancy bottle from a thrift store, Christmas Tree Shops or Pier One. But mine came out kind of muddy looking, which wouldn’t look all that Christmassy. So I chose a brown bottle I had in the basement.

This sent me on a wild tangent that ended with me finally finding out that the top of my fancy brown bottle boasts a “lightning” enclosure, the name of that swinging bar with the stopper and rubber gasket you see on old-fashioned bottles — and bottles trying to look old-fashioned. I’m sure you will be thrilled to learn that the apparatus was first patented by Charles de Quillfeldt of New York City on Jan. 5, 1875.

2. By the way, there are Lightning (now called “swing top”) bottles available from wholesalers online, though there’s that last-minute thing. Look for “swing-top bottles” in the Google. One immediate and fun source of fancy bottles would be a four-pack of Grolsch beer. Just saying.

3. Moving on. If you are really pressed for time and need an impressive food gift, you can’t go wrong with chocolate bark. I’m not embarrassed to admit that I WAS pressed for time and succeeded in making four different batches in half an hour.

I like to microwave chocolate to melt it. You can also use a double boiler or jury-rig one from a sauce pot and heat-proof mixing bowl. Either way, plan to babysit it. Just because chocolate bark is easy and quick doesn’t mean you can go washing dishes or decorating the house at the same time. Chocolate does not appreciate being ignored. It’ll seize if it’s too hot, or it gets wet, or it’s melted too quickly.

4. I usually skip watching food videos with online recipes. I don’t know why. They usually contain pretty good information. It just feels like it’s slowing me down. But for the chocolate bark, I actually watched the one on “tempering” chocolate and it offered yet another technique that pros use to melt it that they say gives chocolate more “pop” when you break it and prevents “bloom” or that whitish coating chocolate sometimes gets after long storage. It’s safe to eat, but unsightly.

Anyway, it’s called “tempering.” The woman on the video said it was a short-cut version of tempering, where you put warm water in one large bowl, and the chocolate in a slightly smaller bowl and place it in the water bowl and — making sure not to get water on the chocolate — stir it until it’s smooth, changing the water as needed. I’ll have to try it sometime. Now’s good for me.

5. One thing on the Pecan Cookies, which are pretty straightforward: I wouldn’t make them into shapes that have a lot of intricate pieces sticking out — because they’re crumbly. My stars were really pushing the physics of this dough. And, by the way, the dough is very crumbly. No, you didn’t do anything wrong. The longer you knead it (more like mush it around), the more the butter will soften and bring everything together.

To be honest, if you’re shipping them anywhere, I’d go with circles or squares. And don’t forget the vanilla sugar. It’s divine.

Merry Christmas dear readers. I wish you all the warmth and peace of loved ones gathered around lots of yummy food.

Winter Orange Pomegranate Iced Tea

Prep time: 10 minutes; stand 5 minutes; chill 4 to 24 hours; serves 6

3 cups water

1 navel orange, sliced into ¼-inch slices

3 inches stick cinnamon, broken

6 whole cloves

4 orange-flavored or black tea bags (decaffeinated, if you like)

1 cup orange juice

1 cup pomegranate juice

2 -3 tablespoons sugar

For serving:

12 orange wedges or chunks

6 lime wedges or chunks

6 6-inch wooden skewers

Ice cubes

In a medium saucepan, combine water, orange slices, cinnamon and cloves. Bring just to boiling; remove from heat. Add tea bags. Let stand, covered, for 5 minutes. Remove tea bags; discard. Strain tea mixture through a fine mesh strainer; discard orange slices and spices.

In a glass pitcher, combine strained tea mixture, orange juice, pomegranate juice and sugar, stirring to dissolve sugar. Cover and chill for at least 4 hours or up to 24 hours.

To give: Use a funnel to fill decorative bottles. Label.

To serve: Place 2 orange wedges and 1 lime wedge onto each skewer. Serve tea in glasses filled with ice cubes. Add fruit skewers to each glass.

— www.midwestliving.com

Chocolate Bark Candy

1 pound per batch of bark of any sweetened chocolate, the best you can afford: such as white, milk, dark, bittersweet, semi-sweet, peppermint chips, peanut butter chips or more.

1 cup toppings per pound of chocolate: Can be any combination of chopped dried fruits, nuts, salty snacks, crushed candy canes, chocolate chips, coarse salt or more.

Line a baking sheet with parchment or waxed paper and set aside.

Finely chop the chocolate and melt it in one of two ways:

In a microwave: Place chocolate in a glass bowl and heat at half power for one minute, stir with a completely dry fork. Continue microwaving at smaller and smaller increments (remember to use half power), each time stirring with the same fork that has not been in contact with anything but the chocolate until chocolate is smooth.

Alternatively, use a double boiler, or heat about 1 to 2 inches of water in a large pot to simmer. Place a bowl that does not touch the water over the pot and stir the chocolate in the bowl until melted and smooth.

Once the chocolate is melted, spread it on the parchment or waxed paper and top as desired, see below for suggestions. Let bark set up in a cool room (or, in a pinch, in the fridge).

Break or chop into bite-size pieces.

TOPPING SUGGESTIONS:

Dried cranberries and pistachios (nice for Christmas)

Broken pretzels and potato chips (addictive)

Peanuts or mixed nuts (doubly addictive)

Dried tropical fruit (especially good on white chocolate)

Fresh berries (if bark will be consumed immediately)

— adapted from www.midwestliving.com

Pecan Cutout Cookies

Makes about 4 dozen

2 cups pecan halves (8 ounces)

1 cup sugar, divided

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 cup cold butter, cubed

Vanilla sugar:

2/3 cup sugar

½ teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 325 F. Place pecans and ½ cup sugar in a food processor; process until pecans are finely ground. Transfer to a large bowl.

Stir flour and remaining sugar into pecan mixture; cut in butter until crumbly. Transfer mixture to a clean work surface; knead gently to form a smooth dough, about 2 minutes. (Mixture will be very crumbly at first, but will come together and form a dough as it’s kneaded.) Divide dough in half.

On a lightly floured surface, roll each portion of dough to ¼-inch thickness. Cut with a floured 3-inch cookie cutter. Place 1 inch apart on ungreased baking sheets.

Bake 10-12 minutes or until edges begin to brown. Cool on pans 5 minutes. Meanwhile, in a shallow bowl, mix vanilla sugar ingredients until blended.

Dip warm cookies in vanilla sugar to coat; cool completely on wire racks. Store in airtight containers.

— www.tasteofhome.com

Nutrition Information Per Serving: 109 calories, 7g fat (3g saturated fat), 10mg cholesterol, 34mg sodium, 12g carbohydrate (7g sugars, 1g fiber), 1g protein

— Jennie Geisler can be reached on Twitter: @ETNGeisler.

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