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Fabulous frugal food gifts

As we face the holiday season with worries about stretched budgets and shrinking retirement accounts, gifts from the hearth seem more compelling than ever. Something in this varied collection of recipes should please everyone on your list. None requires particular culinary skill or pricey ingredients, and all will say you care in a very special way.

TOFFEE, BRITTLE

The toffee and brittle recipes listed are amazingly quick and easy - no candy thermometer or crouching over a stove trying to figure out when the ingredients have reached the soft ball stage.

You can find an 8-ounce tin of toffee priced at $10 or more in gourmet shops. You can make two gifts that size for a total of $5 to $8, depending on the type of nuts and chocolate. The rich, buttery taste and texture are what's most important, so walnuts and grocery-store quality chocolate will do. I do not, however, recommend substituting margarine for butter.

An 8-ounce tin of pistachio brittle in a gift catalog was priced at $14. Starting with shelled pistachios, you can produce two gifts of more than 8 ounces each for less than $6. Substituting peanuts for the pistachios cuts the price in half.

Easy baked toffee

Makes about 1 pound, or 60 pieces.

Pecans, almonds, pistachios or macadamias may be substituted for the walnuts.

1 cup (2 sticks) butter

1 cup light brown sugar, packed

2 1/2 cups finely chopped walnuts

1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips

-Heat oven to 375 degrees. Lightly butter a 9-by-13-inch pan.

-Place butter and brown sugar in a heavy, medium saucepan and bring just to a boil over medium heat. Stir in 2 cups of the nuts. Pour into the prepared pan and bake 15 minutes.

-Remove from oven and sprinkle with the chocolate chips; when softened, spread evenly over toffee. Sprinkle remaining 1/2 cup nuts on top.

-Let cool completely, then break into pieces. Store in an airtight container.

Microwave pistachio brittle

Makes about 1 pound, 40 servings. A half-pound makes a generous gift.

Almonds, pecans, walnuts, macadamia nuts, cashews or peanuts may be substituted for the pistachios.

Vegetable oil spray

1 cup sugar

1/2 cup light corn syrup

1 cup roasted, shelled pistachios

1 teaspoon butter

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

1/2 teaspoon almond extract

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/3 cup coarsely ground pistachios (optional)

-Spray a cookie sheet well with vegetable oil; set aside.

Combine sugar and corn syrup in a 1 1/2-quart glass casserole or Pyrex measuring bowl. Microwave on high 4 minutes. Stir in pistachios. Microwave on high 3 to 5 minutes more, until brown.

-Stir in butter, vanilla and almond extracts. Microwave on high 1 to 2 minutes more, until pistachios are lightly brown and syrup very hot.

-Coat a wooden spoon with vegetable oil and use it to stir in baking soda until light and foamy. Pour onto prepared cookie sheet. If desired, quickly sprinkle coarsely ground pistachios on top.

-Let brittle cool on baking sheet 30 minutes to 1 hour. Flex sheet to remove brittle and break into small pieces. Store in airtight container.

CRANBERRY VODKA

A delicious and pricey restaurant-like cranberry martini like the version listed here, but with a twist, replicating the flavor profile of a favorite cranberry-orange relish. The vodka takes on the flavors with gusto, and turns a holiday-perfect red.

A 750-milliliter bottle of brand-name cranberry vodka sells for $22 to $30. Use inexpensive vodka to produce three pint-size gifts for $15.

The flavored vodka is wonderful chilled and served as a martini or cosmopolitan or with club soda or tonic.

Cranberry orange vodka

Makes 3 gift bottles, each about 14.5 ounces.

1 (12-ounce) bag fresh or frozen cranberries

1 cup sugar

2 oranges, unpeeled

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1 (750-milliliter) bottle vodka

-Rinse cranberries and place in food processor. Add the sugar and pulse briefly. Scrub the oranges, quarter, and add to cranberry mixture, pulsing until finely chopped. Add vanilla and process briefly. Scrape into a glass or plastic container with a tight-fitting lid. Pour in the vodka. Cover tightly, shake well and place in a cool, dark spot for a week.

-Strain out the solids, pressing against a fine sieve to release all the juices. Strain vodka again through a coffee filter. Pour into 3 clean 1-pint bottles. Store in refrigerator.

CANDIED NUTS

Candied walnuts are irresistible for snacking, wonderful on a salad and perfect for garnishing a holiday cheese or fruit platter. At a gourmet store, a 3.5-ounce package costs about $6. You can make four 4-ounce gifts for the same amount, and they taste even better. Toss the prepared walnuts with dried cranberries or cherries and you'll double the yield.

The recipe is adapted from a 2000 Bon Appetit magazine that called for corn syrup and white sugar. This version has more pizzazz, with a nice balance of sweet and salty.

Maple candied walnuts

Makes 4 (4-ounce) gifts.

Vegetable oil spray

2 cups walnuts

4 tablespoons real maple syrup

2 tablespoons dark brown sugar

1 teaspoon salt, or to taste

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

Ground cinnamon, ginger, cloves, five-spice powder and/or cayenne (optional)

-Heat oven to 325 degrees. Generously coat an 11-by-14-inch jelly roll pan with vegetable oil. Toss the walnuts in a bowl with the syrup. In another bowl, mix the sugar, salt, pepper and additional spices if desired. Toss with the walnuts.

-Spread the nuts on the prepared pan, using a fork coated with vegetable oil spray to break up any clumps. Place in oven for 5 minutes. Turn nuts over with a spatula. Turn oven down to 300 degrees and bake 5 to 8 minutes more, watching carefully to be sure nuts do not burn and stirring twice to break up any clumps. Nuts should be deep golden and bubbling.

-Remove pan to wire rack, break up any clumps, then turn onto waxed or parchment paper and allow to cool completely. Store in airtight container.

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