From the hearth
Gifts put together in your kitchen add warmth to your holiday greetings
Every teacher, school-bus driver, and crossing guard will tell you that a nice card is all that's necessary at the holidays. That's not to say they'll refuse a little cellophane sack filled with walnut toffee or spicy cheese rounds. Or that your manicurist or trainer will say "No" to a container of authentic Italian Bolognese, a jar of bean soup mix, or a box of chocolate bark.
There were flush years when homemade gifts of food seemed a little hokey. But now all those cooks who are experienced in turning their homes into holiday production areas, churning out cookies and candies by the hundreds, have a leg up on everyone else. Even if you only go into the kitchen to plug in the electric coffeemaker or unload the takeout, this is a good year to learn your way around the rest of the appliances and pick one easy recipe to make in quantity.
Here are two things anyone can do: Drain a can of tuna, put it into a food processor with a stick of butter, a generous squeeze of lemon juice, salt, and a pinch of cayenne pepper. Whir, pack into two custard cups, cover with plastic wrap, and add tags. Or make a lengthwise slit in a Medjool date, tuck in two roasted almonds, press the date closed, and sprinkle with confectioners' sugar.
If neither of those seems intimidating, you may be ready to tackle Marcella Hazan's famous Bolognese, the classic pasta sauce from Emilia-Romagna in Italy. She simmers beef with milk and tomatoes for several hours. Anyone who has ever sat down to a delectable bowl of fresh tagliatelle would be thrilled to receive this. Bean soup mix is an easy exercise in which you fill a jar (an old peanut butter or mayonnaise jar works well) with layers of dried white, black, and kidney beans, barley, split peas, and a plastic bag of spices; add a tag with instructions for simmering. An old-fashioned cheese spread consists of different kinds of sharp cheddars mixed with butter and a pinch of cayenne pepper.
More ambitious cooks might turn to the sweet side. Peppermint bark - every candy manufacturer seems to have a version of this now - is really just melted chocolate with crushed peppermint candies added. Chocolate-dipped candied orange rind uses the part of the fruit you might be tossing on the compost pile. Cut the rind off the oranges, make thick strips, and simmer them in sugar syrup until they're tender. Then leave them to dry and dip first in sugar and then in chocolate. The combination of bittersweet chocolate and sweet rind is a winning one.
The real winners here aren't just the recipients of your handmade gifts. Making them is a satisfying project, particularly if you stick to one thing and get really good at it. "My gift to my friends is staying out of the kitchen," someone told me recently. Well, there's one person who will appreciate your efforts.