From the Kitchen and the Heart
Homemade treats are great to have on hand this time of year for hostess gifts, teachers, pet sitters, mail carriers and even the unexpected friend who drops by. Take a little time to make a few tasty treats, package them in pretty bags or boxes, and you’re prepared to show someone your appreciation on the fly.
For the bakers in your life, homemade vanilla extract is a nice treat they will appreciate. This requires forethought, as it takes three months to percolate, so it won’t be ready this holiday season, but would be great for future gift-giving. Start by slicing six whole vanilla beans lengthwise, then drop in a fifth of vodka or light-colored rum. Sit in a cool, dark place to let it do its magic. Shake every week, and after three months, you have bona-fide vanilla extract. Strain through a cheesecloth into pretty bottles. Put in a gift basket with a spatula, wooden spoon, apron and the dry ingredients from your favorite cookie or cake recipe. Be sure to include the recipe, too!
Elevate the Basics
Most everyone loves homemade cookies and brownies, but who says you have to make them from scratch? Buy rolls of cookie dough and slice onto a baking sheet. Top with crushed peppermints, sprinkles, chopped nuts, or even colored sugar, and bake. Another idea is to spread frosting in between two sugar cookies to make a sugar cookie sandwich. Wrap in plastic wrap and gift in a decorative Christmas tin or cookie bag. To give brownie mix a wow factor, add a box of chocolate pudding mix and some mini peanut butter cups to the batter, then bake as usual. Another idea is to make a batch of brownies, remove from the pan and cut into shapes with cookie cutters. Spread colored frosting on the top, or decorate just like you would a batch of Christmas cookies.
Homemade trail mix and flavored nuts are always popular gifts. They’re also a good source of protein for snacking while you’re cooking. After all, if the chef goes down, nobody eats. A simple trail mix only needs three components — salty nuts, nonsweet cereal (like corn squares or O’s) and something sweet (like chocolate candies or candy corn). Popcorn and pretzels are great additions, as well. Popcorn even can be substituted for the cereal in most trail mix recipes.
A cute idea that’s especially easy to prepare is chocolate cake-in-a-mug. Fill a Christmas-themed plastic bag with the dry ingredients, then place the bag in a cute Christmas mug, along with a card-sized version of the recipe (top right). If you’ve made homemade vanilla, you can add a small bottle of that, then wrap the entire thing in plastic wrap and put a bow on it.
Drink-themed gifts are popular and easy to make. For the coffee lover, dip a couple of plastic spoons into melted chocolate and sprinkle with crushed peppermints, then place in a plastic bag, and put in a gift bag with a Christmas mug, and a bag of coffee or a few coffee pods. Packets of instant hot chocolate also can be added, so the recipient can make café mochas.
Russian tea mix is another idea for gifts in a mug. The mix can be prepared by combining 2 cups of orange drink powder, ¾ cup of unsweetened instant tea, 1 cup of sugar, ½ teaspoon of cinnamon and ½ teaspoon of ground cloves. Include a recipe card with the tea mix. Combine 2 tablespoons of mix into 1 cup of hot water. A tasty alternative is to substitute orange juice for ½ cup of water. This mixture smells great if you simmer a pot of it on the stove.
No matter what treats you prepare this Christmas season, make sure to keep a few extra bags on hand for unexpected guests, and to keep yourself fortified when you’re making homemade gifts for others. Remember, family and friends are the true gifts, and doing something special for them always is appreciated. Merry Christmas, everyone!
– Tiffany Hughes, an Acworth resident and is volunteer coordinator/scheduler for the Booth Western Art Museum.
Pumpkin Blonde Brownies
• 2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
• 4 teaspoons pumpkin pie spice
• 2 teaspoons baking soda
• ½ teaspoon sea salt
• 2 sticks butter, melted and cooled to room temperature
• 1 cup dark brown sugar
• ½ cup white sugar
• 1 egg
• 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
• 15-ounce can pumpkin puree
• 1 cup white chocolate chips
• 1 cup butterscotch chips
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray a 9-by-13-inch pan with cooking spray. In a large bowl, combine the listed ingredients, flour through pumpkin puree, and stir until well combined. Do not overmix. Fold in both white chocolate and butterscotch chips.
Spread the batter (which will be thick) into a pan, and bake approximately 35 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Store in an airtight container. Serve warm with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.
NOTE: For a chocolate version, add one box of chocolate pudding to the mixture and substitute dark chocolate chips for the white chocolate chips.
• 1 cup brown sugar
• 3 teaspoons pumpkin pie spice
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 2 egg whites
• 2 tablespoons water
• ½ teaspoon vanilla
• 1 pound pecan halves
Preheat oven to 250 degrees. In a large zip-top bag, combine the sugar, pumpkin pie spice and salt. Shake to mix then set aside. In a large bowl, whisk together the egg whites, water and vanilla, then stir in pecans. Stir until all the nuts are moistened. With a slotted spoon, remove pecans from bowl and drop in the bag with the pumpkin spice mixture. Once all the pecans are in the bag, seal the top and shake to coat.
Remove the nuts from the bag with a clean slotted spoon and spread into a single layer on a baking sheet. Bake one hour, stirring every 15 minutes. Remove from the oven and cool to room temperature before storing in an airtight container.
NOTE: These nuts are great on ice cream, waffles and in banana bread. A cinnamon version can be made by substituting 2 teaspoons cinnamon and ½ teaspoon ground ginger for the pumpkin pie spice.
Marshmallow Caramel Popcorn
• 10 cups freshly popped popcorn
• 16 ounces honey-roasted peanuts
• 2 cups pretzels
• 2 sticks butter
• 1 cup brown sugar
• 20 large marshmallows
In a large bowl, combine the popcorn, pretzels and peanuts while the popcorn is still warm. In a large pot, melt the butter then add the brown sugar, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Add marshmallows and stir until melted. Immediately pour over the popcorn mixture and mix well. Work quickly to coat the popcorn before the caramel cools. Spread out on a cookie sheet to cool. Store in an airtight container.
Chocolate Peanut Butter Cake-In-A-Mug
• 4 tablespoons flour
• 4 tablespoons brown sugar
• 2 tablespoons cocoa
• 3 tablespoons peanut butter (or chocolate) chips
• 1 egg
• 3 tablespoons canola oil
• 3 tablespoons milk
• Splash of vanilla extract
Add dry ingredients, including peanut butter chips, to a mug. Whisk in egg, oil, milk and vanilla. Place the mug in a microwave and cook for 3 minutes. The cake will rise over the top of the mug, then deflate, so don’t be alarmed. Allow to cool a little before tipping out onto a plate to serve.