I like giving homemade food gifts. They’re appreciated by everyone: the child with a sweet tooth, the apartment dweller without room to garden, the new mom too busy to can, the grandparent who simply doesn’t need more stuff. But food gifts are also perfect for people you want to thank with something thoughtful that won’t break your year-end budget: your hairdresser or favorite coworker, your child’s soccer coach or piano teacher, the neighbor who feeds your cat or helped jump your car. Chances are none of these people need more candles, bath soaps, fridge magnets, or Christmas ornaments. But they all need to eat.
The first food gifts that come to mind during the holidays are cookies, and it’s certainly easy to stretch a batch as you prepare treats for the family or an exchange. But if your giftee has dozens of clients or students, the sugar load can add up fast. Some of my favorite “small” gifts are short on sugar yet big on taste.
Sweet Spice Mix
1 whole star anise
4 teaspoons allspice berries
2-3/4 teaspoons whole cloves
1-1/2 teaspoons coriander seeds
1/8 teaspoon Szechuan peppercorns
1/8 teaspoon fennel seed
2 teaspoons ground ginger
Break the cinnamon stick and star anise into pieces, and grate the nutmeg using a microplane or nutmeg grater. Warm a heavy skillet over low-medium heat. When hot, toast all ingredients except the ginger for 4–5 minutes, until the spices give off a lightly toasted aroma. Stir the spices constantly while toasting. Add the ginger, stir for about 10 seconds, and then transfer to a plate to cool completely.
If desired, grind the blend into a fine powder using a spice mill or clean coffee grinder. Package in small gift jars or opaque containers, where it will keep for up to a year when whole or 3 months when ground if stored away from heat and light. Makes about 1/3 cup whole spices and 1/4 cup when ground.
Tips & Tricks
- As those who take my Indian spice workshop learn, the flavor that comes from toasting, grinding, and otherwise preparing your own spices hits ground and premixed blends out of the park. So it’s worth the extra time to create this blend from whole ingredients. The exception is ginger; fresh gingerroot is too juicy to keep in a dry spice mix.
- Whole spices keep longer and are beautiful in a jar, so you may want to package this blend after toasting for accomplished home cooks. If you suspect your recipients wouldn’t be comfortable grinding the spices, go ahead and break down the blend for them.
- When gifting a spice blend, it’s a good idea to include not just a gift tag with storage notes but also a card describing its uses. I regularly add a pinch to my morning oatmeal. I also substitute it in any recipe that calls for cinnamon, such as atop Rhubarb Crisp or Apple Crumble Pie or in scone or pancake batter. It’s also delicious as a seasoning for spiced nuts (see below).
- As a larger gift, try pairing your spice blend with other homemade seasoning mixes. If you dried your own herbs, you can easily prepare Italian Seasoning Blend. Small jars of herb-infused salts and sugars can be added to a seasoning kit. Or consider a larger condiment package, featuring your spice blend, homemade mustard, and salad dressing or sample containers of condiments you put up during the growing season, such as Home-Smoked Chili Paste, herb butter, Pickled Garlic, and jam.
Twice as Tasty
As we spend some slow time with friends and family over the holidays, reliving the year’s highlights and dreaming of plans for the next, munchies always seem to be at hand. After a couple of days even I tire of my favorite cookies and reach for other snacks. I start popping jars of pickles, slicing blocks of cheese, and pouring out bowls of nuts.
If you’re looking for an upgrade to your grab-and-go collection, it can’t get easier than spiced nuts. Commercially seasoned nut mixes rely more on salt and sugar than flavor to justify a higher price tag. Unadorned, shelled nuts aren’t cheap, but they are better in price and quality than anything preseasoned in a tin. You best options for your own nut blends are whole or halved, raw or lightly roasted, and unsalted. Nuts are seasonal, but these days their pricing seems to be driven more by demand than availability, so watch for sales throughout the year and store them in your freezer.
Sweet and Spicy Nuts
1 tablespoon water
1/2 teaspoon Home-Smoked Chili Paste, or to taste
1 pound raw whole or halved nuts
1/3 cup ultrafine sugar, or to taste
2 teaspoons sea salt, or to taste
3 teaspoons ground Sweet Spice Mix
In a medium bowl, beat the egg white, water, and chili paste until frothy. Add the nuts, tossing to coat. Transfer the bowl’s contents to a mesh sieve and let drain for 5 minutes.
Combine the sugar, salt, and remaining spices; add the drained nuts and toss to coat. Spread the nut mixture on an ungreased rimmed baking sheet. Bake at 300°F for 35–40 minutes, stirring every 10 minutes, until the coating adheres to the nuts and is firm. Remove the nuts from the oven, transfer them to foil, and let them cool completely. When cool, break the nuts apart. Store the nuts in an airtight container for up to a week, or freeze for up to 3 months. Makes 4 cups.
Tips & Tricks
- The blend of sweet, salty, and spicy makes these nuts a treat and is a lovely way to showcase your Sweet Spice Mix. Chili paste should be mixed with the egg white for even distribution, but you can substitute cayenne pepper or smoked paprika to taste, adding the ground spice in the sugar mixture.
- Your nut choices are endless, and I often use handfuls of various nuts left after making other recipes, such as whole cashews and almonds and halved walnuts and pecans. Avoid nuts that are in small pieces, which are less enjoyable to eat by the handful.
- Nuts aren’t the only options for easy spiced gifts. If you’re baking gifts of cookies, pie, or bread made with pumpkin, you can pull out the seeds and season and roast them to gift separately. A bit of spice blend can also be used to flavor a gift bag of granola.
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