Ideas for gifts homemade in the kitchen

Los Angeles TimesDecember 17, 2013 

Gifts are a lot like greeting cards. Store-bought is nice, but nothing compares with homemade and the sentiment it conveys. Not only can you tailor a handmade gift to each recipient, but you can also choose ideas that will fit your budget, whether large or small. And when it comes to food, there is nothing like the taste of something lovingly made from scratch.

Here are 19 food-related homemade ideas perfect for giving. From intricate projects to simple nibbles you can fix in an afternoon, there is something for every level of craftiness. A number of the ideas even make great projects for kids.

Whether you’re thinking of family or friends, neighbors or co-workers, every handmade gift can be personalized and packaged in many ways. And the sentiment will last long after the present itself has been devoured.

Candied nuts: Simmer one or a variety of shelled raw nuts in simple syrup (equal parts sugar and water) until the syrup has infused the nuts, 20 minutes or so. Drain the nuts and spread them out on a baking sheet, then bake at 250 degrees until toasted and dried. For spicy nuts, toss the drained nuts in sugar mixed with a little cayenne pepper before toasting.

Chocolate-covered pretzels: Coat pretzels or dip pretzel sticks in melted chocolate, then drizzle over colored sprinkles or other candy decorations.

Colored sugars: A perfect gift for the avid baker. Place granulated or coarse sanding sugar in a bag along with a few drops of food coloring. Seal and shake the bag to distribute the color, adding additional coloring for richer shades. Mix and match to create a set of vivid colors or subtle pastels.

Springerle cookies: The pale, embossed cookies – made from 4 whipped eggs mixed with a touch of salt, lemon zest and anise extract, 1 pound each flour and powdered sugar and a 1/4 teaspoon baking powder – are formed using beautiful wood or ceramic molds to create patterns such as snowflakes, acorns or the “little knights” after which they’re named. Bake the cookies over a thin layer of anise seed in a 250- to 275-degree oven until set. Give them fresh for eating, or dry them out to use as decorations for years to come.

Flavored popcorn: Looking for something a little more calorie-conscious? Toss fresh popcorn with smoky chile salt or an herbal rosemary garlic seasoning for a quick, healthful gift.

Beer brittle: Combine 1/2 cup beer, and 1 cup each sugar and corn syrup and boil until a candy thermometer reaches 310 degrees, being careful it does not boil over. Carefully add a little salt and vanilla, along with a cup of toasted nuts. Spread out on a foiled and greased rimmed baking sheet, then break the brittle into pieces when cooled and hardened.

Roasted almonds: Beat an egg white until stiff, then stir in a half cup of sugar along with a pinch of cinnamon or cayenne pepper. Toss with a pound of almonds and spread out on a foil-lined baking sheet and bake at 250 degrees until the coating is crisp and browned, an hour or so, stirring every once in a while.

Granola: Toss 4 cups oats with 3 cups mixed nuts with 1/2 cup each oil, brown sugar and maple syrup along with a touch of salt and vanilla (or tweak the spices to suit your tastes), spread out on a baking sheet and bake at 325 degrees until golden brown. Cool, then stir in 4 cups dried fruit.

Caramel corn: 14 cups popped popcorn is tossed with rich caramel – 2 cups brown sugar, 1 cup butter, 1/2 cup corn syrup and a little salt boiled to 255 degrees and then tossed with a teaspoon of baking soda – and spread out on a sheet pan to bake until set. Cool the popcorn and break into clusters before baking. For a little something extra, add nuts to the popcorn before tossing with caramel.

Flavored simple syrups: A perfect gift for the home baker or mixologist. A basic solution of sugar and water (typically equal parts) heated until the sugar is dissolved. Flavor the syrup with citrus peel, or steep with fresh herbs or spices as it cools. You can even replace the water with fruit juice, tea or coffee before making the syrup.

Seasoned breadsticks: Roll prepared pizza dough through a fettuccine cutter on a pasta machine or cut it by hand as thinly as possible. Brush lightly with beaten egg white and season with salt, pepper and a sprinkling of chile pepper or chopped fresh herbs. Arrange on a baking sheet and bake at 350 degrees until golden brown.

Quick-pickled carrots: Simmer equal parts vinegar and water with crushed garlic, toasted fennel seeds, sliced lemon and a little salt. Pour the liquid over peeled, sliced and blanched carrots. Set aside to cool completely, then cover and refrigerate overnight before serving.

Candied fruit and citrus peel: Blanch citrus peel strips in water two or three times to remove bitterness, then simmer the peel and fruit (separately, if working with multiple types of fruit) in simple syrup until tender and translucent. Remove from syrup and cool on a rack. Brightly colored, it makes a wonderful gift for the serious baker (you can also toss the candied fruit in sanding sugar for a treat).

Infused liquor: Start with gin, vodka or tequila. Zest a few oranges using a vegetable peeler (rind only, no pith) and add to the liquor along with a cup of sugar and a little spice (choose either a couple of cinnamon sticks, a few whole cloves, a chipotle pepper or two, or a few cardamom pods). Shake every day for a couple of weeks, then leave in a cool place. The flavor only improves with age.

Whiskey caramel sauce: Cook 2 cups sugar, 1/2 cup water and a teaspoon of corn syrup until the sugar darkens to a rich caramel color, then carefully stir in a couple of cups of cream simmered with a stick of butter and a touch of salt. Add a half cup of whiskey that has been flambeed (the alcohol has been cooked off) and refrigerate before giving.

Seasoning blend/dry rub: For the barbecue enthusiast, give a homemade rib rub. Combine 1 tablespoon each kosher salt, celery salt, black pepper, onion powder, dried oregano, New Mexico chile powder and cumin with 2 tablespoons each garlic powder and sweet paprika. Whisk in 1/4 cup brown sugar. The rub will keep for months tightly wrapped in a cool, dark place.

Flavored marshmallows: Boil 1/2 cup of water with 11/2 cups sugar and 1/2 cup corn syrup until it reaches 240 degrees. Soften 2 packets of gelatin in 1/2 cup of water in the bowl of a stand mixer and then, with a mixer running, slowly pour the sugar mixture into the softened gelatin. Beat until the mixture is light and fluffy, then add a little salt, and a touch of vanilla, citrus zest or cinnamon to flavor. Spread out on a greased, parchment-lined baking sheet and leave overnight to set. Use cookie cutters to cut fun shapes, dusting the marshmallows and cutters with powdered sugar to prevent sticking.

Herbed puff pastry sticks: Thaw frozen puff pastry, butter one side and top with chopped fresh herbs. Use a pizza cutter to slice into thin strips, twist them and bake at 375 degrees until puffed and golden.

Infused sugars: Place sugar in a Mason jar with one or two vanilla beans or a sprig or two of fresh lavender and seal it tight. The sugar will pick up the flavor as it sits, and gets only better with age.

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