Have I said that the winter-holiday season is among my favorite times of the year? It's true: It's amazing how much joy comes from seeing twinkling lights on a tree, from hearing Christmas carols sung by a passionate chorale, from feeling the warmth that emanates from a nearby menorah, from experiencing the wonder of what happened in a Bethlehem stable 2000-odd years ago. And of course there is the glow on children's faces—there is nothing like the feeling that comes with the sight of a kid anticipating a visit from Santa or running through a field covered in wintry white or gorging himself on candy gelt.
Accompanying these magnificent joys is one proclaimed in an old adage: It's better to give than to receive. Don't get me wrong: I love getting presents as much as the next guy. (Again: I enjoy receiving gifts as much as the next guy.) But giving them—and seeing genuine appreciation on a recipient's face—provides me with so much satisfaction that it's as if I received the gift. That sense of satisfaction is magnified when the present is one made with my own hands.
With that in mind, this gift, a piece of advice, is for you: Skip the malls and department stores. Give your loved ones the gift of yourself.
Now, this is good for lots of reasons: ridding the season of commercialization, focusing on what matters rather than on material things, spending your own funds wisely. And it can be done in lots of ways, including making charitable donations; volunteering; giving objets d'art, cards or articles of clothing you've made to family and friends.
Happily, one of the best, least expensive, and most from-the-heart ways to demonstrate your love and friendship to others is by cooking or baking something wonderful for them. What better reason to don the gay apparel—in this case, an apron—than to spread love, peace and goodwill?
Our family is anything but rich, so giving the gift of food is a yearly tradition for us. And while those who receive our home-baked goodies are thrilled with them (or so they say), we experience the joy of working and having fun together, tasting the treats and receiving thanks and kudos. Fa-la-la-la-la, it's the best feeling ...
Snickerdoodles are the number-one holiday cookie in our home. They rock with milk or with coffee, tea, juice or nogs. If you've never tried them or are familiar with the tried and true version, give my Christmas-themed version a whirl; the cookies are easy to make and share. Best of all, almost anyone can eat 'em. I usually make mine with butter, but in the spirit of inclusion, yummy vegan substitutions are included.
2 cups flour
2 tsps. cream of tartar
1 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. salt
1 cup softened unsalted butter
(1 cup canola oil and 2 tbsp. liquid lecithin can sub for butter to make a vegan snick)
1-3/4 cups sugar
2 large eggs (exclude for vegan cookies)
2 tbsp. cinnamon
red and green food coloring
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit (approx. 177 degrees Celsius).
Place the first four ingredients into a sifter and sift them together into a bowl. In another bowl, beat the butter (or oil and lecithin) and 1 1/2 cups of the sugar with an electric mixer until the mixture is light and fluffy. Add the eggs and continue beating until the whole has a smooth texture (omit the eggs if making vegan cookies).
Gradually beat the flour mixture into the butter/egg/sugar combo until a smooth dough appears.
Now, the fun part: Pinch off pieces of the dough and roll them between your palms into tiny balls about an inch or a little more in diameter. Place the balls onto a plate or wax paper. Now, wash your hands!
In each of two tiny bowls—ramekins are ideal—place half of the remaining sugar and half of the cinnamon. Mix a few drops of the red food coloring in one of the bowls to tint the sugar and cinnamon. Do the same in the second bowl using the green food coloring. One at a time, roll half of the dough balls in the red sugar-cinnamon mixture and the other half in the green mixture. Place the balls about two inches apart on canola-oiled cookie sheets.
This is important: Bake one pan at a time near the top of the oven for eight to 11 minutes. Keep an eye on them so they don't become too brown—you want the cookies to be a light golden brown around the edges.
Once done, after allowing them to settle outside of the oven for about a minute, transfer the cookies to wire racks and allow them to cool.
You'll end up with about three dozen snickerdoodles. They shouldn't last long.
Loaves of quick bread make wonderful presents that are easy to wrap and hard to resist. Here is my take on the classic, fragrant pumpkin bread.
3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsps. baking soda
2 tsps. salt
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. ground nutmeg
1 tsp. ground allspice
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. ground cloves
3 cups white sugar
1 cup canola oil
4 eggs, beaten
2 cups solid pack pumpkin puree
2/3 cup water
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit (approx. 177 degrees Celsius). Grease two large loaf pans (I use canola-oil spray).
Combine the flour, baking soda, salt, baking powder, nutmeg, allspice, cinnamon and cloves in a mixing bowl.
In a separate bowl, mix the sugar, oil and eggs until well-blended. Then stir in the pumpkin. Next, we combine it all: Slowly blend the contents of the dry-ingredient bowl into pumpkin mixture. Every now and again, pour a little of the water into the pumpkin-flour batter–the idea is to keep the consistency, well, consistent. When the task is completed, pour half of the batter into each of the pre-oiled loaf pans.
Oven time: Bake the breads for 90 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center of each bread comes out cleanly. Let sit for 10 minutes before removing the breads from the pans, then put the pan-free goodies on a baker's rack to cool. Makes two hearty holiday loaves.
Cinnamony Apple Butter
I'm sorry, it just isn't the holidays without the aroma of apples and cinnamon wafting through the house. This marvelous butter, prepared in a crock pot or slow cooker, is amazing with warm bread or snickerdoodles, on pancakes or latkes and as a dipping sauce for fresh fruit chunks. Packaged in a half-pint jar (be sure to tie a festive ribbon around the lid), it makes a gorgeous, tasty gift. Be sure to make plenty to keep at home.
4 lbs apples, peeled and cored
2 cups unsweetened apple juice or cider
2 cups sugar
2 tsps. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. ground cloves
1/2 tsp. allspice
1/4 tsp. nutmeg
5 half-pint dome-lid jars, sterilized
The ingredient list notes that the apples should be peeled and cored. In full, that means: Wash them, peel and core them, then chop the apples into large chunks.
Place the apples into a large pot with the apple juice. Bring the pot to a rolling boil, then reduce heat to medium-low and simmer for about 30 minutes or until the apples are soft.
Take the apples and juice and strain them through a food mill or sieve; do this step twice if you like a really smooth butter. Once strained to your liking, place the strained material into a crock pot or slow cooker. Stir in the sugar and spices until the mixture is thoroughly blended.
Place the lid on the crock pot or slow cooker and cook on low heat for 12-14 hours. (During the last hour, sterilize the jars and keep 'em hot.)
When the butter is thickened and looks shiny, take a small spoonful and place it onto a chilled plate. Tilt the plate a tiny bit—if liquid doesn't run down the plate, the butter is ready. (If it does, continue cooking and testing until it maintains its consistency.)
Ladle the butter into the sterile and hot half-pint jars. Clean any spillage around the jars' rims with a damp cloth, place the dome lids and screw on the bands tightly. Place the jars in a pot filled with water heated to just under boiling (about 200 degrees Fahrenheit/ degrees Celsius) for 10 minutes. Remove jars and allow to cool.
Once cool and dry, the easiest way to make the jars festive is to tie a thin holiday-colored ribbon around the lid. Makes five 1/2-pint jars—and five grateful giftees.