There's still time to make Christmas gifts that comes from the warmth and love of your kitchen to your friends' and families' hearth and home. But you don't want to give just any old homemade edible present. The best gifts are straightforward and delicious, ones that find a place on the table over the holidays.
With that in mind, I'm offering these recipes, from cookies for friends who love home baking but never do, a boozy ice cream topper for those people who entertain, a condiment to grace platters all through the season, even tangy glazed nuts to take along for host/hostess gift.
CHOCOLATE CHIP SHORTBREAD
This drop shortbread is about the easiest to make, and surely the most tender, melt-in-your-mouth kind. The recipe originated with Hilda Shaw of London, who will never be forgotten by her granddaughter Marilyn Short. She marks each holiday season baking the recipe with her son Asher. Pack the shortbread in pretty tins, or enclose in clear bags, then tie with ribbon.
1 lb. (450 g) salted butter, softened
3/4 cup (175 ml) icing sugar
1/2 cup (125 ml) cornstarch
2-1/2 cups (625 ml) all-purpose flour
1 cup (250 ml) semi-sweet chocolate chips
Line 2 large rimless baking sheets with parchment paper or leave ungreased; set aside.
In a large bowl, beat together butter, icing sugar and cornstarch until well blended. Mix in flour, 1/2 cup (125 ml) at a time. Stir in chocolate chips.
Drop batter by scant tablespoons (15 ml) about 1 inch (2.5 cm) apart onto prepared baking sheets. Bake in centre of preheated 300F (150C) oven until firm and light golden on bottom, about 30 minutes. Let cool on pan on rack for 10 minutes; transfer to racks to cool. (Make-ahead: Layer with waxed paper in airtight containers and store at room temperature for up to 2 weeks, or freeze for up to 1 month.)
Makes about 60 shortbread.
TIP: A small ice cream scoop is handy for scooping these shortbread. For frosty looking shortbread, dust lightly with icing sugar. For the sense of more chocolate in every bite, use miniature chocolate chips.
VARIATION: Add up to 1/2 cup (125 ml) toasted slivered almonds or finely diced crystalized ginger.
These crisp biscotti bypass the traditional Christmas spices - cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves, in favour of a subtle hint of anise. No anise in your spice drawer? You can leave it out, letting the flavour of walnuts and cranberries come to the fore. The recipe is adapted from the California Walnut Commission, and uses the superior walnuts that come from that state.
2/3 cup (150 ml) butter, softened
3/4 cup (175 ml) packed light brown sugar
3 large eggs at room temperature
2 cups (500 ml) all-purpose flour
2 tsp. (10 ml) baking powder
2 tsp. (10 ml) grated lemon rind
1 tsp. (5 ml) anise seed, lightly crushed
1/4 tsp. (1 ml) salt
2 cups (500 ml) roughly chopped walnut halves
1 cup (250 ml) dried cranberries or chopped dried cherries
Line large rimless baking sheet with parchment paper or grease; set aside.
In a large bowl, beat butter and sugar until pale and fluffy. Beat in eggs, one at a time until well combined.
In a separate bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, lemon rind, anise and salt. Mix in walnuts and dried cherries. Add half of dry ingredients at a time to butter mixture, stirring until combined.
Evenly shape dough into 2 logs, each 12 -x 3-inches (30 cm x 8 cm). Arrange parallel but about 2-inches (5 cm) apart on prepared baking sheet. Bake in centre of preheated 325F (160C) oven until firm to touch and light golden, about 20 minutes. Let cool on rack for 15 minutes. Transfer to cutting board. With serrated knife and holding log steady, gently cut into 1/2-inch (1.25 mm) thick slices, straight across.
Return biscotti to baking sheet cut side down, adding a second lined baking sheet if necessary, and bake for 15 minutes. Turn over and bake until completely dry and golden, about 15 minutes. Transfer to racks to cool. (Make-ahead: Store layered with waxed paper in airtight container for up to 2 weeks, or freeze for up to 1 month.)
Makes about 40 biscotti.
ROASTED HONEY BALSAMIC PECANS
A gift for friends hosting an open house or drinks party? A gift bowl holding glossy pecans is perfect. For freshness, flavour and presentation, be sure to buy the nuts in halves. This recipe doubles easily.
2 cups (500 ml), (1/2 lb./250 g) pecans or walnut halves
3 Tbsp. (45 ml) liquid honey
1 Tbsp. (15 ml) balsamic vinegar
3/4 tsp. (4 ml) coarse sea salt, Maldon recommended
Line large rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper; set aside.
In a bowl, stir pecans with honey until nuts are well coated. Stir in vinegar.
Spread nuts evenly and in 1 layer over baking sheets. Roast in centre of preheated 350F (180C) oven, stirring once, until glossy with a toasty aroma, about 15 to 20 minutes.
Sprinkle with salt; let cool completely. Break apart. (Make-ahead: Store at room temperature in airtight container for up to 2 weeks.)
Makes 2 cups (500 ml) nuts
TIP: If nuts become sticky, spread on baking sheet and return to oven for 5 minutes.
VARIATION: Maple Balsamic Pecans: Toss nuts with 1/3 cup (75 ml) medium or amber maple syrup and 2 Tbsp. (30 ml) balsamic vinegar. Roast for about 20 to 25 minutes, stirring twice. This recipe is inspired by the glazed pecans at Les Fougeres, one of Canada's loveliest restaurants located in Gatineau, Quebec.
BRANDIED APRICOTS AND FIGS
Take 5 minutes and make one of the snazziest gifts - one that's sure to be used, as the brandy-drenched apricots and figs are just plain divine over ice cream, with a little splash of the brandy or cognac as well.
8 oz. (250 g) Mission or other dried figs
4 oz. (125 g) dried apricots, small if available
1-1/2 cups (375 ml) brandy or cognac, approximate
Wash, rinse and let dry 2 (1 cup/250 ml) canning jars.
Trim tips off figs. Into bottom of each jar, lightly pack quarter of figs, half of apricots, then remaining figs. Fill jar to within 1/8-inch (3 mm) of top with brandy. Seal with new discs and rings. Let stand at room temperature for at least 5 days.
Makes 2 very sumptuous gifts. For 1 extremely special gift, divide fruit and brandy between 1 (2 cup/500 ml) jar.
VARIATION: Prunes in Armagnac: Loosely pack 12 oz. (375 g) pitted large prunes into 2 (1 cup/250 ml) jars. Fill jars to within 1/8-inch (3 mm) of top with Armagnac or brandy. Seal with new discs and rings. Let stand at room temperature for at least 5 days. Makes 2 gifts.
CRANBERRY APRICOT CHUTNEY
This colourful condiment is for readers who like to take a jar of homemade preserves to colleagues at work, or the homes of neighbours and friends. It's a lot more exciting than plain cranberry sauce for the big bird, and is a very fine complement to holiday fare like ham, tourtiere, charcuterie, cold turkey, and yes, cheese, especially a nicely aged Cheddar or Gouda. Try a little with grilled cheese sandwiches, or top a Brie before popping it into the microwave to get all oozy and melty.
2 cups (500 ml) lightly packed dried apricots
1-1/2 cups (375 ml) diced onions
1 cup (250 ml) golden raisins
1/2 cup (125 ml) chopped dates
4 tsp. (20 ml) grated gingerroot
1 Tbsp. (15 ml) zested orange rind
2 cups (500 ml) orange juice
6 cups (1.5 L) fresh or frozen cranberries
2 cups (500 ml) granulated sugar
2 cups (500 ml) water
1 cup (250 ml) cider vinegar or white wine vinegar
2 tsp. (10 ml) brown or yellow mustard seeds
1 tsp. (5 ml) cinnamon
1/4 tsp. (1 ml) each allspice, cayenne and salt
With scissors, snip apricots into strips. Combine with onions, raisins, dates, ginger, orange rind and juice in large Dutch oven. Cover and bring just to boil over medium heat, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat and let stand for 1 hour.
Stir in cranberries, sugar, water, vinegar, mustard seeds, cinnamon, allspice, cayenne and salt. Bring to a gentle boil over medium heat, stirring often. Reduce heat and simmer, stirring almost constantly, until cranberries have popped and chutney mounds on a spoon, about 30 minutes.
Pour into hot 1-cup (250 ml) canning jars, leaving 1/4-inch (5 mm) headspace. Wipe rims if necessary. Cover with warmed lids. Screw on bands until resistance is met; increase to fingertip tight. Boil in boiling water canner for 10 minutes. Let cool on racks.
Makes about 9 cups (2.25 L).