Christmas gifts, the sequel
By Kara Kimbrough
Before you call me hypocritical for my next statement, yes, it’s true: I advocated buying Marie Callender’s pies for Thanksgiving if baking was not in your wheelhouse or time frame. With that disclaimer out of the way, I was saddened recently while walking through the supermarket baking aisle and realized that cinnamon, spices and everything else baking-related-nice were fully stocked. One aisle over, shoppers were putting prefabricated, cellophane-wrapped baskets filled with coffee mugs, miniature grilling sauces, hot cocoa mix and s’mores kits in their carts.
Here’s a radical idea: instead of buying pre-made food and beverage kits (or any type gift) this year, why not consider making a few homemade treats this year? I guarantee, even the simplest baked goods will be remembered and appreciated, not just during the Christmas season, but all year long.
I speak from personal experience when I say gifts made in the kitchen are sometimes the most meaningful. Each Thanksgiving, my aunt would package Christmas bags for each family member filled with homemade treats. Tins of old-fashioned Chex mix or “scrambles” as she called them, jars of hot chocolate and spiced tea mix; cheese straws, caramel corn and homemade candy were just a few of the annual treats.
The last Christmas bag she created before going to her heavenly reward got me through my final graduate school project in 2010. The story of me munching on her treats while working 48 hours straight and her recipe for chocolate Crock-pot candy made its way into my column that year. Remembering how her treats were appreciated, I try to make a few homemade gifts each Christmas season.
I presented jars of instant spiced tea to two friends at a catch-up Christmas lunch last week. It's the only gift I’d had time to prepare in the early morning hours before we met. Suffice to say, my time management skills have been lacking as of late.
Ironically, I never liked spiced tea in the past, so my aunt substituted hot chocolate mix in my bag. Now that I’ve become a daily hot tea drinker, I’ve acquired a taste for the fragrant beverage. An electric kettle has become a lifesaver- it’s a gift I highly recommend one for the tea-lovers in your life.
This week, I’m planning to make a slightly different version of my aunt’s “scrambles.” This batch, using a recipe I found in a cookbook compiled by a Columbia church, doesn’t contain cereals, but instead, a few of my favorite salty snacks.
As an aside, one of my crafty friends at the lunch (the other one is equally talented, but prefers to showcase her creativity through the written word) presented each of us with a bottle of homemade vanilla. Complete with a tag created on the computer, it’s a gift I’ll value and use throughout the year, especially during the holiday baking season.
Also on my must-make list are cinnamon-sugar pecans and peanut brittle using a friend’s mom’s recipe. Last, a gift that’ll need to be eaten within a few days (but I doubt my friend will complain) is crock-pot apple butter. Placed in Mason jars and decorated with festive Christmas material and ribbon, it’s the perfect gift. I mean, who can find fault with fragrant apple butter?
If, like me, your time management is not where it should be, I still encourage you to carve out a little time to bake – or make-homemade gifts this year. Unlike the shrink-wrapped s’mores basket, they’ll be used and remembered well after the other gifts have been forgotten.
Hilda’s Instant Spiced Tea Mix
1 cup Lipton Instant Tea
2 cups Tang or other orange drink mix
1 cup white sugar
1-2 scoops of Country Time or other lemonade powdered drink mix
1 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Orange, thinly sliced with peel on
Mix all ingredients together in a large bowl, then pour into jars. Serving directions to add to a tag: Place 1-2 teaspoons in a mug and fill with hot water. Add thin orange slices and cinnamon sticks for a festive touch.
Columbia Party Mix
1 cup butter or margarine, melted
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon curry powder
½ teaspoon garlic salt
1/8 teaspoon hot sauce
6 cups corn chips
4 cups cheese crackers (Cheez-Its or similar brand)
3 cups mixed nuts
6 cups popped popcorn
1-1/2 cups walnut pieces
Combine first 5 ingredients, stirring well. Combine corn chips and remaining ingredients in a large roasting pan, stirring to combine. Bake at 250 degrees for 1 hour, stirring every 15 minutes. Spread on paper towels to cool. Makes 16 cups.
“Repeat Performance,” Woodlawn United Pentecostal Church, Columbia
Cinnamon-Sugar Pecans 1 egg white 1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract 4-5 cups pecan halves 1 cup white sugar 1 teaspoon sea salt 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Preheat oven to 250 degrees. Grease a large baking sheet. In a small bowl, combine sugar, sea salt and cinnamon, set aside. In a large bowl, whip egg white and vanilla with a whisk until frothy. Add pecans to wet mixture, one cup at a time, stirring to coat nuts evenly. Make sure all nuts are well coated before adding more. Once pecans are completely coated, sprinkle dry ingredients over pecans and stir until evenly distributed.
Spread the pecans evenly on the prepared baking sheet. Do not use parchment paper or foil; bake pecans directly on the baking sheet.
Bake at 250 degrees F for 1 hour, stirring every 15 minutes. Remove and let cool before packaging.
Crock-Pot Apple Butter 8 pounds apples: Granny Smith, Fuji, Gala or Pink lady (can combine varieties if you’d like)
½ cup apple juice
2 cups packed brown sugar
1 cup white sugar
2 tablespoons ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
Peel and quarter apples and place in a large crock pot. Add all other ingredients and stir well to coat apples. Cook on LOW 9-10 hours (your house will smell amazing while it’s cooking!)
Strain contents through a wire mesh strainer into a large pot and place back into your crockpot, discarding seeds and cores in the process. Cook an additional hour uncovered until thick. Place into sterilized jars (I sterilize my jars in the dishwasher) and refrigerate. Makes 6-7 pint jars.
* Include a tag stating the apple butter should be eaten within 1 month.
Kara Kimbrough is a food and travel writer from Mississippi. Email her at email@example.com.