When I was a child, every Christmas was marked by at least one full day of cookie-baking madness. Family friends would come to the house where my mother was busy mixing and rolling and cutting dozens upon dozens of sugar cookies and molasses cookies while we children were sat around the kitchen table, armed with colored sugar, egg-yolk paint, frosting and sprinkles, ready to decorate.
Some years the treats were earmarked for bake sales and Christmas parties; other years, they hung like the finest ornaments on loops of ribbon and yarn from the branches of our Christmas tree. There was also the requisite making of “Texas trash”—a chocolate-coated mess of pretzels, nuts and crunchy cereals—Chex mix and “puppy chow”—chocolate and peanut butter-coated cereal bites dusted in powdered sugar. The urge to DIY a few gifts at Christmas was instilled in me at an early age.
I can clearly remember the first time I tried to make Grandma’s molasses cookies on my own: in my dorm kitchen, with a cheap handheld mixer that nearly burned out because it couldn’t handle the six cups of flour and sticky molasses called for in the recipe. And then there was the year I decided to make and mail mini peppermint cheesecakes to all my gift recipients. Perhaps not the brightest idea I’ve ever had.
Still, they were necessary steps in my evolution as a foodie and, thusly, as a homemade food gift giver. Now I start well ahead; I plan treats and packaging that will survive the postal service. And I’ve branched out quite a bit from plain cookies (though Grandma’s molasses gingies will always make an appearance).
Food gifts need not be labor intensive or expensive. One of my favorite gifts to give is a jar of spiced nuts. If you can make Chex mix, you can make spiced nuts. Customized blends of spices, dry rubs or mulling spices for wine or cider make excellent, easy gifts. This year, I picked and dried bunches of herbs from my garden, which will be divvied up into muslin bags and put into gift baskets for friends and family—a great way to use up a bounty I would otherwise never get through on my own.
Cookies are only slightly more difficult, and most people feel comfortable with them. They needn’t be fancy to be appreciated by the recipient. In fact, I try to forgo any anxiety over my lack of Martha Stewart perfection and remember that these homemade gifts need not look like they came from an expensive store. That’s sort of the point.
Candies can range from easy (fudge, or anything dipped in chocolate) to more challenging (anything harder than fudge), but the point of a DIY food gift is not to try to impress the recipient with how hard you worked pulling that taffy or salting that caramel, but merely to say, “I was thinking of you.”
For me, it’s a way to recreate—and maybe package with a pretty bow—some of that love and camaraderie I felt every Christmas, sitting in our kitchen, decorating cookies with my family.