I come from a large Polish Catholic family, the kind where the first wave of immigrants had 6 or 8 or 10 kids and no one has really gotten around to breaking that tradition yet. (Sometimes, I think people talk sadly behind my back about my lone offspring.) As a result, my holiday present list is enormous. I can’t possibly buy everyone a present that I need to give one to without bankrupting myself. So several years ago I started supplementing my gift giving with homemade presents.
Here’s the thing though: [pullquote]I’m a great starter. I have terrific ideas. Tons of energy. Plenty of good intentions. You could drown in my good intentions. The down side to this is that I’m a terrible finisher. I am, like many other people, kind of lazy.[/pullquote] If I make grandiose plans for hand-sewn Christmas stockings for the dozen or so immediate family members, I putter out of steam as soon as I finish cutting out the patterns. I get bored or overwhelmed and end up hunkered down in front of the tv, eating the cookie dough I was really, truly going to make into edible tree ornaments. In the past couple of years, I’ve learned I need to bring my ideas into line with the time and energy I actually have to expend and to not overreach. In short, I needed lazy people’s crafts.
For your gift giving or creating pleasure, I’m offering you the gifts I’ve gotten the most bang out for my proverbial buck. After putting together my list, I realized every idea here is a gift presented in some sort of jar. Most of them are mason jars. You can find mason jars at many larger grocery stores, at craft stores like Michaels (or check your locally owned crafting place) or online. I’ve found the best prices on jars at Giant, but your results will likely vary.
This is an exceedingly simple yet impressive present. You ingredient list will read like this:
1 bottle of better-than-well level vodka
Stuff you want it to taste like
That’s it. I make a pepper infused vodka that has become famous in my family:
1 bottle of Skye
1 each of every hot pepper I can find at Whole Foods. Sometimes 2 or 3 if they’re small
At home, chop your peppers into small but not fine bits. Throw them into an airtight jar. Pour vodka into jar. Seal. Stick it in a dark cabinet for a minimum of 4 days. I usually leave it to infuse for 2 weeks, but no longer. Remember to wash your hands well afterwards, or you’ll wonder why your lips are burning and your eye smarts after you rub it accidentally. At the end of the infusion period, strain the vodka using a strainer and cheesecloth (or a coffee filter) into whatever bottle you want to use for gift giving.
My vodka usually turns a sickly shade of green at the end of the infusion process and it’s always best served ice cold. Remember to toss around the words “˜infused’ and “˜essences’ when passing out shots. People seem duly impressed when you do. Challenge people to do shots, especially that uncle who is always bragging about how he likes spicy things. Do not share with that one cousin who has a weak stomach and is prone to throwing up.
Coffee-Cinnamon Bath Salts
- 1/2 ““ 1 cup extra-light olive oil
- 1/3 cup ground coffee
- 6 Tbsp cinnamon
- reusable coffee filter, or several paper filters, in a coffeemaker basket
- 3 lb. container of Epsom salts
1 cup baking soda (optional)
1. Warm the olive oil in the Pyrex container in a saucepan of boiling water. Mix in the coffee first, then the cinnamon, stirring to blend as the mixture heats. Continue to infuse for 20 minutes on the stove, stirring from time to time. Alternate directions: Make the infusion in a crock pot, adding all the ingredients at once and leaving it to steep for 2 hours on high heat.
2. Pour the coffee-cinnamon-oil mixture through the coffee filter into the large mixing bowl, one-third at a time. Discard the grounds and keep the oil. Let it cool to room temperature.
3. Mix the infused oil with the salts (and baking soda if you’re using it). You’re done!
Variation: green tea-ginger. Substitute 1/3 cup green tea and 1/4 cup powdered ginger (cheaper if you buy it in bulk) for the coffee and cinnamon.
Seriously easy and a seriously great gift. I found that the ½ pint mason jars are the most appropriate for this particular present. A full pint is a lot of bath salts.
Cakes in Jars
This is a great gift for people who don’t spend nearly as much time on the internet as I do and aren’t aware that things baked in jars is soooo 2008. They might even think you came up with the idea yourself. The ideal cake in a jar is something that doesn’t require frosting ““ pound and spice cakes are great for this. In addition to the cake ingredients, you’ll need wide mouthed mason jars. Pint size is nice for individual servings of cakes, but I’ve baked in quart sized jars if I’m giving a family gift.
This chocolate mint pound cake works out fantastic. The recipe is adapted from The Cake Mix Doctor:
- 1 package (18.25 ounces) plain butter-recipe fudge cake mix
- 1 package (8 ounces) cream cheese, at room temperature
- ½ cup water
- ½ cup vegetable oil
- ¼ cup sugar
- 4 large eggs
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- 1 ¼ cups (about 28) Andes chocolate mint candies (broken in half) or Andes baking pieces
- 1 tablespoon confectioners’ sugar, for garnish
Mix everything but the mints together. Once well incorporated, fold the mints in gently.
For the jar baking, spray the inside of the jars with baking spray, and fill ½ way with batter. The cake will rise, so don’t use too much batter. You don’t want the cake to bake all the way up to the rim of the jar. Arrange your jars on a baking sheet and place in a 325 degree oven. Baking time should be about 30 minutes, I usually start checking at 20 because my oven seems to operate in some sort of baking time warp where 30 minutes in the outside world is only 20 on the inside. (Time will vary based on jar sized used as well.) Do the toothpick test to determine doneness. Remove from oven. In order to seal the jars, the lids need to put on while the jars are still hot and the lids themselves are warm. I usually keep the lids in a bowl of warm water until I’m ready to use them. Warm lids get placed on the hot jars. In about 15 minutes, you should be awarded with a popping sound as the seal is formed.
Theoretically, you should be able to keep canned cakes up to 6 months. I have one lone cake from a batch I made 2 years ago (seriously!) that my partner and I often look at consideringly and wonder if it’s still edible, but I wouldn’t suggest that kind of culinary experimentation.
Soup Mixes/Hot Chocolate Mixes/Cookie Mixes in Jars
This is a classic. In a mason jar, layer the individual ingredients, decorate the jar with some fancy fabric or ribbon, and include a recipe card with instructions on making the soup/hot chocolate/cookies.
Mexican Hot Cocoa
- 1 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
- 1 cup powdered milk
- 1 cup firmly packed brown sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
- 3/4 cup chopped Mexican chocolate (such as Ibarra)
- Cinnamon sticks
This will fill a quart sized jar. For smaller jars, just decrease the ingredients proportionately. To serve, mix jar contents together in a bowl, place 1/3 of the mixture into a mug and add boiling water.
Repeat for your favorite recipes!