Several years back, my family agreed to stop buying holiday gifts for the adults. Money was always tight for somebody and none of us are big shoppers, so we decided just to buy gifts for the kids. It was determined that homemade gifts would be an acceptable caveat and we’ve never looked back since. Everyone has developed their own niche, and now it just wouldn’t be Christmas without my sister’s homemade lip balms and body scrubs or Grandpa Gene’s hand-carved ornaments.
Not surprisingly, I make edible gifts for the folks on my list. Every year I ship gift boxes stuffed with different goodies each year to out-of-town family. Over time I’ve figured out that some items travel and store better than others. Delicate or soft cookies like sugar or chocolate chip do not hold up well and tend to fall apart by the time they arrive. Crisp varieties like gingersnaps, biscotti and shortbread are good options. I learned the hard way that it’s better to package homemade scone mix in sturdy zip-top freezer bags rather than the decorative cellophane holiday-type bags. A couple of the pretty bags split open in transit, so when my brother opened his box, he was treated to a poof of flour and a mess!
The medium-size flat rate shipping boxes from the post office work well because you don’t need to be concerned with weight and they’re big enough to send several different items. Each year I send several different kinds of cookies and treats packed amongst little jars of preserves that I’ve put up over the summer along with hand-drawn cards and pictures from the kids.
When making holiday treats, I always make extra so that I have little gifts on hand throughout the season for teachers and friends. Somehow, these homemade gifts manage to be both ‘one size fits all’ and deeply personal. My mother-in-law, a quilter, told me once that the best part of making a quilt for someone is that you think about that person the whole time you’re making it, and the love you have for them is behind every single stitch. I find the same to be true with baking and cooking for others. This year, while I’m packaging up caramel corn or dusting marshmallows with confectioners’ sugar, I’ll be counting my blessings. It’s a time to be grateful for people I love and a splendid excuse to shower them with sugar.
¾ cup popcorn kernels
½ cup butter
1 cup packed dark brown sugar
¼ cup dark corn syrup
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
½ teaspoon baking soda
Pop the popcorn using an air popper or on the stovetop (you will need to use a small amount of oil if popping on the stove). You should have about 4 quarts of popped corn. Transfer the popped corn to a large roasting pan, being careful to discard any unpopped kernels.
Melt butter in a large saucepan and add brown sugar, corn syrup and salt. Stirring constantly, bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to low and allow the mixture to simmer and bubble for 5 minutes without stirring. Remove from heat. Add vanilla and baking soda (mixture will foam up). Stir well.
Pour the mixture over the popcorn and stir well to coat. Bake at 250 F for one hour, stirring at 15 minute intervals. Allow to cool slightly, then break the mixture apart (don’t let it cool too long or it won’t come out of the pan). Package in an airtight container when fully cool.
While I’m not a fan of regular marshmallows, these are sublime in hot chocolate or toasted over a fire.
4 envelopes unflavored gelatin (1 ounce)
1 ½ cups room temperature water
3 cups granulated sugar
1 ¼ cups light corn syrup
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon vanilla extract or vanilla bean paste
2 cups confectioners’ sugar
Oil a 9x13-inch baking dish with cooking spray.
In the bowl of a stand mixer, soften the gelatin with ¾ cup of the water.
While the gelatin softens, combine the sugar, corn syrup, the remaining ¾ cup water and the salt in a heavy-bottomed sauce pan. Bring to a boil and cook over high heat until the mixture reaches the soft ball stage (235-240 F on a candy thermometer).
With the whisk attachment of the mixer running at full speed, slowly drizzle the hot syrup mixture into the gelatin. Continue to beat until the mixture is very stiff, about 10-15 minutes depending on the speed of your mixer. Spread the mixture into the oiled dish and smooth the top with an oiled spatula (the mixture will be extremely sticky). Dust confectioners sugar over the top and allow it to rest, uncovered, 12 hours.
Dust a cutting board generously with confectioners’ sugar. Turn the stiffened marshmallow mixture out onto the cutting board and dust with more confectioners’ sugar. Using oiled kitchen shears or cookie cutters, cut the mixture into cubes or shapes as desired (avoid intricate designs if using cookie cutters). Toss the cut marshmallows in confectioner’s sugar to coat, then package them up in airtight containers.
Make peppermint marshmallows by adding a few drops of peppermint extract along with the vanilla and swirling crushed peppermint candies into the mixture before you spread it into the baking dish. For chocolate marshmallows, add ½ cup cocoa to the gelatin mixture before you pour in the hot syrup and ¼ cup cocoa to the dusting sugar.