Time to kick kitchen workshop into gear

I’m not one to rush the season, but Rebecca Hill assures me that the Mail Tribune food section is already behind the curve with this week’s story on edible holiday gifts.

Every year, Hill plans for several months to produce elaborate, edible sculptures in time for an event marked a full month before the traditional timing for gingerbread houses. But even Hill was surprised that customers in her Sweet Stuff baking boutique asked for Christmas supplies before Halloween. Really!?

But any handmade item, including one from the kitchen, takes more thought than speed-walking through the mall and power-shopping. Some ideas featured in this week’s story (vanilla extract and herbed vinegars) take time to develop their full flavors before depositing under the tree. So now’s the time to start making your lists, checking them twice (or thrice) and ramping up production in the kitchen. Thinking of it like Santa’s workshop sets the holiday mood.

Not every edible gift has to be elaborate, of course. I make a couple of traditional treats in a marathon baking session every year for gift-giving. But I’m all for simplifying. This year, a couple of families in our circle of friends will get gift bags of in-shell walnuts from trees on our property with a snazzy nutcracker, maybe a little figurine of the same name and a box of my favorite holiday tea: Celestial Seasonings’ Nutcracker Sweet. How easy is that?

While walnuts may seem like an odd gift, they have unsurpassed flavor, according to past recipients, who also appreciate something relatively healthy amid the season’s barrage of sweets. In the same vein, homemade granola is a gift that health-conscious recipients can enjoy. Hill rolled her eyes at the idea (who wants granola?), but premium granolas are expensive, and high-quality ingredients for making it at home aren’t exactly cheap.

Or simplify the theme to trail mix, sugared or spiced nuts or flavored popcorn. Package them in Mason jars with pretty ribbons and labels. Again, minimal preparation required, so it’s something you can do in hurry or let kids do all on their own.

Here’s a recipe courtesy of The Associated Press to inspire you. Find more ideas all month long on our Holiday 101 page.

AP photo

Handmade Have-It-Your-Way Granola

3 cups old-fashioned oats

1⁄3 cup packed brown sugar 

1⁄2 teaspoon salt

1⁄3 cup canola or vegetable oil

1⁄3 cup maple syrup

Flavorings of choice (see below)

Heat oven to 250 F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

In a medium bowl, combine the oats, brown sugar and salt. Set aside.

In a small saucepan over medium heat, combine the oil, maple syrup and 2 tablespoons water. Bring to a boil, then pour over oat mixture. Stir until thoroughly coated. Spread mixture onto prepared baking sheet. Bake for 1 hour, stirring every 15 minutes, or until dried and lightly toasted. Allow to fully cool before packaging.

Makes about 5 cups.


Dutch apple: Stir 1⁄2 teaspoon nutmeg, 2 teaspoons cinnamon and 1 cup of walnut halves into dry oat mixture before baking. After baking, add 1 cup chopped, dried apple and 1 cup golden raisins.

Jamaican: Stir 1⁄2 teaspoon ground mace, 1⁄2 teaspoon ground allspice, 1 cup cashews and 1 cup large-flake, unsweetened coconut into dry oat mixture before baking. After baking, add 1 cup chopped, dried pineapple and 1⁄4 cup chopped, candied ginger.

Chocolate-cherry: Stir 1⁄4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder into dry oat mixture before baking. After dry mixture has baked and cooled, add 1 cup dried cherries and 1⁄2 cup mini chocolate chips.

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