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Get crafty this holiday season

Homemade goodies are light on the pocketbook and make wonderful presents.

December 02, 2009|By Rene Lynch
  • With adult supervision, kids can make chocolate-covered pretzels.
With adult supervision, kids can make chocolate-covered pretzels. (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles…)

I'm a bit of a Grinch. When Halloween rolls around, I turn off the porch light and close the curtains. Each Thanksgiving, I give thanks that I have a friend who hosts the holiday dinner so I don't have to. And I own an artificial Christmas tree with lights already attached because I can't tolerate all those tangled strands.

The one holiday tradition I embrace wholeheartedly is shopping. Perhaps it's because I employ the "one gift for you, two gifts for me" method. This year, though, is different. Like everyone else, I'm cutting back. My husband spent a chunk of the year between jobs, we sprang for some much-needed (and costly) home improvements and, you might have heard, the newspaper business has fallen on tough times.

But I'm not completely abandoning holiday trappings. (I said I'm a Grinch, not a Scrooge.) So I've decided to get crafty. Not Martha Stewart crafty -- there won't be any sewing, carpentry or glue guns involved. But I figured that with some crafty shopping tactics -- and inviting a like-minded girlfriend to spend an enjoyable afternoon or two in the kitchen instead of queuing up for a parking spot at the mall -- I can wake up after the holidays debt-free.

Which brings me to food gifts. I love receiving food gifts for the holidays. But giving them is another thing entirely.

Have you ever noticed that some food gifts -- infused liquors, for example -- can end up costing you more in time, money and hassle than if you had just given someone a good bottle of hooch and called it a day?

So, what to make?

Christmas cookies are a holiday favorite, and they can be economical too. But I wouldn't dream of competing with my mother's spritz cookies -- she sends me about 10 dozen (no exaggeration) each year, and they should be arriving any day now.

The best food gifts I've received over the years have been useful items that do not tug at my conscience or my waistline. (I certainly enjoyed that box of homemade fudge I got last year, but I inhaled the whole thing. My husband never saw it, never even knew about it.)

And my favorites are among the most casual: One friend doled out homemade spice mixes, one for chili, the other a dry rub for ribs, in plastic Baggies that carried a sticker label. From another friend I got a Mason jar filled with her mother's salad dressing, a kind of Thousand Island vinaigrette.

Jars and wraps

With "simple is best" as my mantra, I went shopping. Holiday gifts are so much about the packaging -- and that can be plenty expensive, sometimes more so than the gift inside.

So, I started by cruising several stores looking for food-safe tins, jars, bags and boxes and the like, and quickly realized that nothing would be cheaper than decorative cellophane gift bags, and those tried-and-true Mason jars that you can buy at the supermarket for less than $1 a piece. (Gussy up the metal tops by using pinking shears to cut out two squares from contrasting fabrics, and use ribbon to tie the swatches over the tops.)

Now, on to the most important part. What to put inside?

I started with vanilla-bean sugar. To me, this is a luxury that you'd never make for yourself. And that makes it a perfect gift to give to a baker, or someone who takes their coffee on the sweet side. And it couldn't be easier to make: Sugar, meet vanilla bean.

And it seems kind of kitschy, but once I started thinking about chocolate-covered pretzels, I could not stop. They're sweet, but not too sweet, during a holiday season likely to be drenched in sugar; and kids can make them with adult supervision, and it won't take all night. I had some pretzels, and bought bags of semi-sweet chocolate morsels on sale, and a jar or three of cookie decorations (also on sale), and I was good to go. (Warning: Sanding sugar decorations will turn into a hot mess when they hit the chocolate. You need nonpareil decorations and old-fashioned sprinkles for this job.)

The decorated rods go into a clear cellophane bag and are tied off with festive ribbons for immediate chomping.

I wanted something savory too. I riffed off a recipe I read in Nigella Lawson's new holiday book "Nigella Christmas" and marinated feta cheese cubes in a small Mason jar using liberal doses of garlic powder, dried oregano and red pepper flakes and covered it all with a fruity olive oil. Very easy, with hardly any cleanup. Add a box of crackers, and that's an instant appetizer for a friend who will have endless visitors over the holiday season.

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