Precocious Calvin and his wise toy tiger Hobbes. I’ve been obsessed with them for as long as I can remember. Apparently with good reason, since it looks like I’ve been applying Calvin’s philosophy covertly in some areas of my life without being aware of it. Last-minute panic is an intermittent state of being for me around the holidays. I find myself there in either the matter of holiday cards or holiday gifts. It is rather sad really to discover yourself in this position year after year, surprised to find it is December, even when it shows up without fail, right after November. As it turns out, last-minute panic also led me to realize I had not said a word about holidays on here so far.
All my good intentions pave my path to panic hell when I find my Christmas cards haven’t been bought, let alone mailed. Or we find ourselves with an invitation to a party and have no host gift handy. Then we show up with an apologetic bottle of wine, a default gift I have mixed feelings about, especially around the holidays. There are a couple of reasons for this.
1. There’s nothing wrong with a bottle of wine as a host gift. Unless your host or hostess doesn’t drink wine. In which case, you just gifted something only one or none of them can appreciate. Given the situation, it could convey a lack of thought. Around the holidays, a time earmarked for thinking about your family and friends, that is depressing.
2. If you’ve been invited to a Christmas or New Year’s Party, a large one, imagine the number of bottles of wine the party host will receive. They are likely to appreciate a different gift more than you think.
3. If you stepped into the supermarket to buy that wine (you know you did. You’d prefer not to, but where else are you going to find that last-minute bottle in a hurry?), there are other things there that would have made better gifts. Good olive oil is a great choice. Or chocolate. Unless of course, your hosts don’t like to cook or don’t like sweets. Then, perhaps flowers are in order, or tea. I think a small bunch of pretty white chrysanthemums, cheerful sunflowers or gerbera daisies are a simple yet under-rated gift.
Contrariwise, (because apparently Tweedledee and Tweedledum also left their impression on me) here’s when, in my opinion, wine is great as a gift.
1. When it’s a dinner invitation to a small party, a gift of well-considered wine given to wine drinkers will likely be appreciated.
2. When you know that either your host or hostess (or both) is a wine lover and you are giving them a bottle they perhaps don’t know about but you know they will like. Or you are gifting them one of their favourites. Saying this when you arrive helps. Either scenario shows you thought about it. Which is what counts.
3. When you are bringing the wine for the party, having previously decided this with the hosts. (Not to digress too much, but as a rule, don’t expect your bottle to be opened at the party. The host may have planned for something else. Your bottle is a gift, one that may or may not be shared with you.)
We live in a world of excesses, where most of us probably have more than we need. We’d like to do more, give more, but it isn’t always possible. But thoughtfulness, that is something we should find the time for. I find I’d rather receive nothing rather than the obligatory thing. The thoughtful gifts, or the hand-made ones, those I cherish beyond all other. Our friends Robert and Sayo once showed up with a bottle of olive oil for me, and a bottle of Japanese instant coffee for Amey. An edible gift always makes me feel ridiculously chuffed and Amey had appreciated a cup of that coffee when he’d been over at their home for dinner. We completely adored how what they gave us reflected the consideration and thought they had put into it. Another friend once gave me a bottle of moscato when she discovered I liked sweet wines but hadn’t tried moscato. I loved that she chose to remember this even more than that wine, which it turns out I did enjoy.
We have been guilty of the obligatory wine bottle gift ourselves. We don’t do it around the holidays, that is our only defense. In an effort to be mindful, in the past few years, I’m also trying to make it a point to give edible gifts around the holidays, ones that I work to create. Or else, gifts with some thought to them. It is easily done. Give an avid reader a great bookmark or book. A crafter, some great scissors. In this world we live in, time is the most precious gift you can give someone. Spending that time thinking about and executing treats for a holiday gift is a great way of telling your friends and family that they matter to you. Aside from, you know, actually telling your friends and family that you care – something too few of us do.
Rushed for time as our lives can be, here are a couple of really good gifts I found this year that aren’t too involved in ingredients or time. As gifts, they are stellar. One is sweet, the other is savoury. Both are easy to make and are very enjoyable.
Sara-Kate Gillingham’s Skillet toffee
Adapted slightly from the The Kitchn
This toffee is a stunner. I gravitated towards the recipe because of its small ingredient list and that it didn’t seem to involve too many steps. I found it to be a show-stopper, easy and adaptable. It makes mouth-watering toffee, the kind that will have you reaching for a second, third, fourth piece. The recipe is forgiving. Even if your sugar-butter mixture goes way past golden brown to deep amber, as a couple of my batches did, the end result is a great, slightly smokytoffee. I didn’t have a cooling pan that was the right size, so I ended up with slightly thicker pieces that I cut smaller. It didn’t seem to matter much. Don’t skip the parchment paper. It is important to your sanity.
After trying one batch of the Kitchn recipe, I modified other batches to introduce subtle flavours. But let me assure you, the original recipe makes excellent toffee. You could add a couple of pinches of cardamom powder, or lemongrass, or saffron. I loved each of those additions, the quantities prevent them from overwhelming the lot. This recipe is going to become a mainstay in my edible gifts repertoire, holidays or otherwise.
Unsalted butter – 1 pound
Sugar – 1-1/2 cups
Rose geranium sugar – 1/2 cup
Smoked chilli salt – 1/2 tsp
Vanilla extract – 1 tsp
Semisweet chocolate chips – 8 oz
Dry-roasted unsalted pistachios – 3/4 cup, chopped
– Line a 10″ X 15″ pan with parchment paper. (Or line a 12″ X 8″ baking pan with paper, will make thicker toffee.)
– In a large saucepan, melt the butter over medium high.
– When the butter melts, add the sugar and salt. Keep stirring the mixture as it bubbles up. A wooden spoon is your best bet here. Move it around the edges of the mixture to prevent it from climbing up the sides.
– Keep stirring and cooking until the mixture turns medium to deep brown. Move it off the heat, then add the vanilla extract. This is a good time to add any other flavour you might want.
– Pour mixture into lined pan, using the spoon to level if needed. After letting it cool for five minutes or so, then sprinkle the chocolate chips over it in a layer.
– In a few minutes, the chocolate chips should start melting. Use a spatula to spread them over the toffee in a smooth layer.
– Sprinkle the pistachio bits as evenly over the chocolate as you can, pressing it down lightly into the chocolate with your hands.
– Allow to cool overnight or for 6-8 hours before cutting into pieces. If it’s thin enough, you can use your hands. I used my bread knife for the thicker batch. Don’t try to slice, just place and press down. With a little jiggling of the knife, you should get easy pieces.
Spicy hot Sauce
Adapted slightly from Food 52
Makes about 2 cups
If you’re tired of all the sweetness and want to spice up your holiday gift, there’s nothing better than this recipe for your very own hot sauce. The ingredients are inexpensive, come out of bottles or cans available at your nearest supermarket, and all you need to make it is a food processor. Nothing could be simpler. It makes a wonderful hot and spicy sauce with heat you can control. You can also change it up slightly as per your taste. Add garlic or onion powder. Use flavoured salts or oils, change it up as you need to. Here’s my version.
Pickled hot peppers – 4 oz (the bottled kind).
Roasted red peppers – 2 oz
Crushed tomato – 2 oz
Olive oil + Garlic Olive oil – 1/4 cup
Smoked chilli powder – 1/2 tsp
Dried oregano – 1/4 tsp
Dried thyme – 1/4 tsp
Brown sugar – 1/4 tsp
Salt to taste
– Combine all ingredients (except salt) in a food processor and combine until quite smooth. Add salt as necessary then process to combine.
If you’re stumped for quick ideas for gifts to that Christmas Eve party, these are great options. Happy holidays to you and yours! Here’s to another year of time and thought spent on the people we care about.
A fun & random holiday book giveaway
This giveaway has nothing to do with food. But the beginning of this post should clue you in.
As I previously mentioned, I love Calvin and Hobbes. I have all the collections of the comic strips. Turns out, I find myself in possession of two copies of one of the books in the collection. So I’m giving one away. The Essential Calvin and Hobbes.
To enter, please tell me what your ideal host/hostess gifts are, to get and to give. You can leave a comment here or on my page under the comments section of this post on Facebook.
The winner will be picked by a random number generator and announced in a week.