Make the most of culinary herbs and spices.
The Gift of Food
by Sandra Bowens
For more years than I care to remember, I was strapped for cash at the holidays. Since I love to cook, food became my standard modus operandi in gifting my large family. I started with the traditional box of cookies and candies but as the years progressed, I got more creative.
One year I made them do the cooking. My “mix basket” was a success largely because they didn’t have to consume everything right away. After all the Christmas cookies and fudge were gone, my brothers and sisters could whip up a batch of sunflower seed cookies by following the instructions on the plastic bag.
My parents were wild about the “Treat of the Month Club.” I presented them with a certificate stating: Each month for the next year, you will receive a special treat, hand made, especially for you. This was as much fun for me as it was for them. Some months I could work around a holiday like Valentine’s Day or Thanksgiving. Other times I could utilize what was fresh at the farmer’s market.
After what my brother and I call the “pasta incident,” I have learned to give my choices careful consideration. I received a pasta machine for my birthday so I decided to send my brother a variety of fresh pastas for his birthday. Apparently, well-wrapped fresh pasta will mold in the mail; he ended up receiving an unappetizing box of fuzzy green noodles.
Now I look for recipes that improve with age, or will at least stand up to a few days in the mail. Cookies like biscotti or macaroons are ideal. Candies travel well and so do seasoned nuts. Most muffins and breads will get stale, with the exception of fruit and nut breads. Cakes, like a rich chocolate or the gingerbread, will generally last but they are fragile. Another point to keep in mind, a delicate lace cookie or a decorated cupcake really doesn’t stand a chance to arrive intact. You needn’t be so selective if you can hand deliver the gift.
For the big holidays, I like to bake up a storm and then everyone on my list receives some form of the goodies. Family members are sent a wide variety of treats but I can also put together small baskets for my friends or send a platter to my husband’s office. Everything should be well-wrapped with self-stick labels describing the contents. Festive packaging, such as colored wraps with ribbons or decorative paper cups, add that holiday touch.
Be sure to give instructions on how the items you send should be stored. The label is a good place or add a note that offers hints to keep the goodies fresh. When I sent my “mix baskets,” I suggested people keep the mixes in the refrigerator until using because many were prepared with organic whole wheat flour. You might also let recipients know how to best serve an item, such as warming or adding whipped cream.
Planning is the key when it comes to baking, packing and shipping multiple gift boxes. Like most people, I have standard recipes I prepare almost from memory for certain holidays every year. But when you undertake a project like this, you want to allow plenty of time and be quite organized. Lists are my saving grace.
A holiday planner keeps various lists right at my fingertips. The planner details recipes to be prepared, followed by necessary ingredients, in the necessary quantities, all coordinated with calendar dates. This is a good time to cost out the whole project, ensuring you haven’t planned beyond your means. Flour and sugar are inexpensive but nuts and chocolates could blow the budget. Be sure to consider your kitchen space and equipment during the planning stage, as well. Five recipes that require time in the oven may not be feasible for your last evening of baking.
Start with items that can be made and held in the freezer such as doughs or candies, then prepare foods that can be held for the longest and, lastly, prepare the recipes that are best soon after they are made. I like to have all my packaging materials ready to go before I begin those final recipes.
When it comes to wrapping and packing, creativity pays off. Consider every box, no matter what size, that passes through your hands as a possible gift vessel. Watch for bargains on baskets, containers, ribbons and the like year round. Buying all these items can get expensive, defeating the purpose of a low-cost gift. I often skip the basket if I have to mail the gift box, opting instead to line the shipping box with colored tissue paper.
While a wide variety of food items will always make an impressive gift, often a more elaborate dessert is unexpected, and happily received. Something like this is trickier for packaging if you want to mail it and may require a little assembling upon arrival. For my dad’s birthday, I sent a pineapple-banana cake that is better a day or two after it’s baked. A monstrous three layer cake that would certainly have been a mess if I iced it, I enlisted the help of my mom on the other end. To pack it, I wrapped the individual layers well in plastic and placed them back into the aluminum pans in which they were baked. Cardboard circles from the local bakery inserted between each pan kept the cake from getting smashed. I enclosed an airline sized bottle of brandy, a can of cream cheese frosting and walnuts for decoration with complete instructions on what my mom had to do. Dad absolutely loved it.
Should you want to present a gift of food to someone in person, do what a friend of mine does. She is always on the lookout for pretty, and inexpensive, plates at antique stores. Later, she can arrange goodies on one and doesn’t need to worry about getting the plate back. Friends have something to remember the gift by long after the food is gone.
One thing I have learned over the years of offering the gift of food is that people really enjoy receiving a handmade treat. The fact that you have taken the time to prepare something just for them is special, no matter what the season or the reason.
THE NON-TRADITIONAL TRADITIONAL GIFT BOX
This is the one that started it all for me.
The most logical way to approach this is to showcase what you do best. Offer a variety of sweet and savory items. The following list is provided as an example but once you explore your options, the possibilities are endless.
Buckeyes (chocolate dipped peanut butter balls)
Mint Surprise Cookies
Mexican Flavored Mixed Nuts
I also like to enclose a homemade cheese spread or cheeseball, if I am delivering the gift.
THE ALL-MIXES BASKET
Ten years later, family members still prepare some of the recipes I included in this kit.
The following recipes were chosen because they are fairly simple to prepare and require only a few wet ingredients complete them. Dry ingredients were packed in heat-sealed (or use resealable) bags with instructions clearly attached. I also enclosed the full recipes, scrolled and tied with ribbon, so people knew what they were making and could make it again, if desired. Be sure to test the recipe mixes in your own kitchen first.
Crackle Bread-a simple baking powder bread with sesame and canola seeds
Herbed Baking Powder Batons-fancy biscuits flavored with dried herbs
My Best ’Cakes-whole wheat pancakes
Brownies-need I say more?
Rye Bread-another baking powder bread
Sunflower Seed Cookies-yummy, healthy drop cookies
Crisp Topping-a streusel-like topping for a fruit dessert
THE HERB & SPICE ASSORTMENT
I fixed this up for my brother who doesn’t like anything spicy, so I didn’t put in any of the peppers.
This is an excellent gift for someone who is just moving in to her own place. Or you might put together the more advanced kit for someone likely to experiment with exotic flavors. Herbs and spices bought in bulk are far less expensive than those little jars at the supermarket. Consider antique bottles or look for a bargain from a mail order spice dealer.
Basic Spice Assortment: Basil, Bay leaves, Black pepper, Cayenne pepper, Cinnamon, Cumin, Dill weed, Garlic powder, Ginger, Oregano, Paprika, Parsley, Rosemary, Sage, Tarragon, and Thyme.
Deluxe Spice Assortment: The above list with Allspice, Caraway, Marjoram, Mint, Mustard, Nutmeg, Poppy seeds, and Sesame seeds.
Baker’s Dozen: Allspice, Anise, Caraway, Cardamom, Cinnamon, Cloves, Ginger, Nutmeg, Mace, Poppy seeds, Sesame seeds, pure Vanilla extract.
Exotics: Cardamom, Fenugreek, Hungarian Paprika, assorted mints, Saffron, Star anise, and Turmeric.
These cost a little more than most of the others but make good individual gifts.
It’s fun to play on a theme, using a central part as the container. For instance, ingredients for a stir-fry meal might be placed in a wok skillet. Include items like tamari, sesame oil, garlic, ginger and sesame seeds along with a few good recipes or even a small cookbook. Chopsticks or a couple of wooden utensils round out the kit. If you were going to hand deliver the gift, you could even add the fresh vegetables.
Or, how about a pasta pot filled with an assortment of dried pastas, your homemade tomato sauce, oil and vinegar with a small packet of herbs for making a salad dressing and freshly baked breadsticks. A bottle of wine, if appropriate, is a great addition.
Every baker would love a new bread pan filled with unusual flours, fragrant spices and new recipes. Whole vanilla beans would be a real splurge here.
The breakfast bonanza might offer an inexpensive skillet filled with homemade pancake mix, real maple syrup, exotic coffee and a flavored coffee creamer powder that you whipped up yourself. Add a cured bacon or ham that doesn’t need to be refrigerated, if desired.
Also, consider putting together a local specialty basket for someone far away. Every area has something unique, like San Francisco’s sourdough or Florida’s citrus. Showcase what you have that others might enjoy.
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