Every year, when you get that great bottle of homemade liqueur, fragrant bar soap, or that plate of exquisitely decorated cookies, you think, “I’m gonna do this next year!” And every year, by the time the gift exchanges start, you realize it’s too late and you’re going to have to buy store bought cookies again or worse, just plain old, unimaginative gift certificates for all those folks in your life that warrant a little something special.
Your problem isn't motivation. Your problem is planning.
A Few Tips for Planning and Gifting
As easy as a recipe might sound, always test it first. It's wise to never make anything for guests or gifts without a test run. You might discover huge discrepancies in your baking time from what the recipe says, or maybe just that you don't like the recipe and need to look for something else. No matter how easy the easy homemade holiday gift is, it simply might not work for you.
Don’t try to make baked goods healthy. If you’re going to cook or bake, make the good stuff. The high fat, high sugar, rich, decadent, only-at-the-holidays stuff. And if you don’t want to do this, or have people on your list who simply wouldn’t appreciate it, then make them something else. There are plenty of healthy-yet-yummy ideas on this list.
Make a variety of easy treats instead of one hard one. Making home-baked cinnamon rolls for everyone from your boss to your mailman might sound like a great idea, but unless you’re an experienced yeast-bread baker, it’s a gargantuan task. (No one tells you how hard it can be to get all those rolls the same size!) Instead, make half a dozen or so easy homemade holiday gifts: shortbread, brownies, fudge, etc. People will appreciate a plate of homemade cookies, bars, and candy that aren't nearly as hard to make (for many of us) as yeast rolls.
Plan ahead--not only the items you’re going to make, but the gift containers, too. If you know what you’re going to make, you can get the right containers. Decorative tins make a very nice package, and they start becoming available just about everywhere this time of year. Do you need to add any recipes or instructions? Consider how you’re going to do that--type of paper, font, design, etc. This can be one of the funnest parts of DIY gift-giving!
Here are a some items you might want on hand:
Decorative boxes (tins are nice too, but they can get expensive)
Or better yet, colored mason jars
Decorative bottles (depending on what projects you choose)
Gift bags and gift wrap (tip: go to the Dollar Store for these!)
Scissors, scotch tape, glue (and maybe glitter)
All the ingredients and equipment for the recipes you want to make--make a list, prepare in advance!
Consider a mix of yummy and healthy. Why not give a plate of cookies and a custom seasoning blend? Or some toffee and almond bark alongside a delicious dry soup mix? People love variety.
Don’t pick this time to start a new hobby. Maybe you’ve always wanted to learn how to bake yeast bread (yup, it's hard to do well, so we're using it as an example of what not to do again), and the Season of Giving has got you inspired. But you know what? If you were going to do this for gift-giving purposes, the time to start practicing was around the time you made your last New Year’s resolutions--which would make you a semi-expert by now, and able to achieve gift-worthy results. If you start now, you may get good results...but you also may not. So don’t pick the holidays as the time to start a new hobby. If you’re not a great baker or particularly crafty, pick something easy--and resign yourself to the fact that you may have to do things--yes, even easy things--more than once before you get gift-worthy results. That’s just how it goes. Try to enjoy the process.
Make sure you have all the kitchen equipment you need! For example, don’t try to make candy without a candy thermometer because no, you can’t eyeball it. Not unless you’ve been doing it for years. To ensure maximum success with the least amount of headaches, follow the instructions and ingredients given for each recipe (except for baking time--more on that below). And only after you’ve mastered a technique should you start modifying it.
If you want your cookies to be uniform in size, use a scale rather than just a spoon. If every cookie weighs an ounce, they’re going to look much more professional than if you just eyeball them. If you don’t own a kitchen scale, get one: they’re cheap.
Icing makes everything fancier! Consider icing your cookies, shortbread, quick breads, bars, and brownies, because icing makes everything prettier and fancier--and it's easy! A simple icing of powdered sugar, milk or cream, and vanilla extract goes well with just about everything. Or to make it extra fancy and more holiday seasonish, use almond extract. Or lemon. Or coconut. And if you want chocolate flavor (excellent on banana bread!), a simple ganache takes it up about a hundred notches. Here are two very basic icing recipes that you can use on just about anything sweet:
Powdered sugar icing:
1 C. powdered sugar
About 1 T. liquid (milk, cream, orange juice)
¼-½ tsp flavoring extract (vanilla, almond, coconut and lemon are all good choices, but almond is especially good around the holidays)
If too runny, add more sugar. If too stiff, add more cream. Add extract to taste (err on the side of caution if you use almond extract--it's strong stuff).
8 oz. semisweet chocolate, finely chopped
1 C. heavy cream
1 T. butter
Heat cream until simmering. Pour over chocolate. Let stand about 5 minutes. Add butter and stir until smooth.
NOTE: The ganache will get stiff as it cools and become hard to spread. Keep warm over a pan of warm water to keep it spreading nicely.
When baking, err on the side of caution. Don’t follow the bake time in a recipe blindly, especially if you’re not entirely familiar with your oven. Always, always, always check your baked goods well before the recipe says to. And in many ovens, items need to be turned so they cook evenly. Also, take cookies out just a shade too early and leave them on the sheet to cool--this will finish them beautifully. And if you’re unsure of your oven, experiment with a small batch before committing a whole recipe.
Now, go get started on your easy homemade holiday gifts!
Nobody expects drop cookies--so named because you simply drop the cookie dough by spoonfuls onto the cookie sheet--during the holidays, but everybody loves them, and they make very easy homemade holiday gifts. Although drop cookies are every bit as delicious as their fancier counterparts, we recommend gifting them only on a variety plate; unless they're some exotic specialty that your friends and family look forward to all year long, they’re not fancy enough to stand alone at holiday time.
You can also ice them to fancy them up, as icing makes everything better!
The recipe on the bag of chips is a classic. To make these a little fancier, use white chocolate chips and macadamia nuts. Yummm!
The recipe on the box of Quaker Oats is also a tried and true favorite. You can ice them to give them a holiday touch (but they don’t really need it).
And don’t you dare leave out the raisins--unless you sub them with chocolate chips!
There are a couple of different ways to make coconut macaroons. You can use beaten egg whites and sugar, or you can use sweetened condensed milk. The egg white version is light and crispy/tender, while the sweetened condensed milk version is dense and chewy. Here is Ina Garten’s recipe on FoodNetwork.com:
We strongly recommend dipping the bottoms in chocolate. You can add some chopped nuts if you’d like (almonds come to mind), too.
Note: This recipe is not perfect. Some people have experienced these cookies forming runny puddles around the coconut when baking. Many explanations have been given for this, from a too-humid day to over mixing the egg whites. But the most likely explanation is that there is simply a tad too much liquid in the batter, and the simplest remedy is to 1) use just one egg white, and 2) add a small amount of flour to the batter before mixing in the egg whites. (about a tablespoon should do it). The batter should be very stiff.
Meringue cookies are another simple-yet-delicious egg white cookie. They’re light as air, crunchy on the outside and chewy in the middle. You can put almost anything in them. For Christmas, crushed peppermint candy makes an excellent addition. Nuts and dried fruit are also nice, and almost make them a healthy cookie (protein and fiber!). Here’s an easy recipe that's pretty much foolproof.
Bonus: Use the leftover egg yolks to make pudding, cream pie, hollandaise, or homemade mayo.
Haystack Cookies--Look Ma! No Bake!
These recipes are easy are also both delicious. One is made with chow mein noodles, and one with oatmeal. These cookies look great on a plate with a few other varieties.
You could easily make the butterscotch as a chocolate version by subbing chocolate chips.
Pumpkin Spice Cookies (possibly the easiest cookie recipe on the planet)
This pumpkin spice cookie recipe has only 2 ingredients! However, to create a truly gift-worthy cookie, you must add chopped nuts and raisins, and you must ice them. (Some people prefer chocolate chips, but we strongly believe raisins are the better choice.)
Be forewarned that this is a very cake-like cookie. That is, it’s fluffy and light and a little on the dry side (as far as cookies go). This is why raisins and icing are important. These additions turn the cookie into a delightful miniature spice cake!
How many raisins to add? Start with a cup. Or if you add raisins and nuts, go with about 3/4 cup of each.
Some of the best holiday cookies are what I'm calling hand-rolled cookies. (As opposed to those you roll flat with a rolling pin.) They are often the type with a dollop of jam, candied cherry, or chocolate pressed into the center. And as with most holiday cookies, icing almost always makes them better.
Peanut Butter Kisses
This is my favorite holiday cookie never made by anyone in my family, ever. (I think my mother didn't consider the lowly peanut butter cookie fancy enough for the holidays.) I always gobbled them up at friend’s houses and vowed to one day make them a holiday staple in my own! Here’s the recipe I’ve used for years:
Note 1: I use butter rather than shortening (AKA trans fat!).
Note 2: I only roll the top half of the cookie in sugar. No reason to roll the bottom, as it might burn.
Note 3: Take the cookies out a couple of minutes before they’re done to put the chocolates in, then pop them back in the oven (no more than 2-3 minutes). This “cements” the chocolates in place better.
Note 4: If you don’t want to unwrap a whole bunch of Hershey’s Kisses, buy a few bags of Brach’s Chocolate Stars or something similar. No unwrapping required, and the star shape gives the cookies a holiday feel. (I would look for them in the grocery store, though, because they'll probably be less expensive.)
Russian Dreams/Snowball/Russian Tea Cakes/Nutballs/Mexican Wedding Cookies
If Google is any indication, nobody but my mother called these Russian Dreams, because these cookies were not what came up in a Google search for that subject. But I remember my mother grinding the nuts for these delectable treats in her blender--no food pros back then! Pretty much everybody is familiar with this cookie. I suppose that’s why it has so many names. Call it whatever you want, it is as delicious and as holidayish as it is easy. Here’s a recipe from Simply Recipes, under the pseudonym “walnut snowball cookies” Even though I use pecans! Whatever nut you use, they’re a breeze to make.
Don’t skimp on the powdered sugar coating!
There are too many bar recipes to do this category justice. I’ve only included a few of the most basic examples (but they also happen to be my favorites). Bars aren’t fancy, but they can make great holiday gifts nevertheless. Most sweet-lovers would be delighted to have a tray of lemon bars and brownies.
If you don’t like the ones I’ve listed here (and fair enough--they are very basic recipes), you can find literally thousands of easy bar recipes online. Just google “bar cookies” and be prepared to wade through the results!
Easy, classic, and always appreciated. Over the years I have tried many different lemon bars, usually involving cream cheese. There’s really no such thing as a bad lemon bar, but I’ve come to the conclusions that simplest is best in this case. This is the recipe I grew up with:
I use icing instead of powdered sugar, especially during the holidays.
This is basically a chocolate chip cookie dough with the chips melted over the top as icing. The dough is suspiciously like what are now called “blondies,” but that term wasn’t invented back when my mother made these for me as a kid. Also, most blondies have chips folded into the dough instead of melted on top, but this is a versatile, easy recipe, so you could do it either way, with the chip of your choice. I prefer semi-sweet chocolate over the top, though. Cover the warm chocolate topping with chopped nuts for a fancier presentation.
1 C. butter, softened (2 sticks)
1 egg yolk
1 t. Vanilla
1 C. brown sugar
2 C. flour
½ t. Salt
1 12-oz bag semi-sweet chocolate chips or melting chips (or the flavor of your choice--look for them in the grocery store for a better price)
Preheat oven to 350F.
Mix all ingredients together.
Pat out in 9x13 pan.
Bake for 15 minutes or until browning around edges and set in middle.
Remove from oven and immediately sprinkle with chocolate chips.
Let chips warm, then spread over bars with spatula.
And now for some family history: The brownie recipe passed down in my family is called “Aunt Rose’s Brownies.” I never knew who Aunt Rose was, but her brownies are the best I’ve ever had anywhere, ever, period. And everyone I’ve ever made them for agrees. Lo and behold, when I googled “aunt rose’s brownies” for this article, I discovered why I never knew Aunt Rose. She didn’t exist--at least, not in my family. She was a chef who became famous for a number of her delicious recipes, as told in this article.
And the way I know this is THE Aunt Rose is because I found the recipe here:
It is nearly identical to “my” Aunt Rose recipe, only doubled. And with a smidge of salt and baking powder, which isn’t in my family recipe (probably because it's so hard to halve an eighth of a teaspoon). There is also no mention of greasing and flouring the pan, but I’ve always done that, too.
Katharine Hepburn! Go figure!
These are old school, dense, fudgy brownies. And they are sooooo easy! You can add nuts or not, depending on your mood. If you’re making them to give away, though, it might be best to leave them out unless you’re certain the recipient doesn’t have allergies.
A tin of these with a nice decorative bow, even though they’re not fancy, would make a lovely gift for anyone with a sweet tooth. Hey, if they were good enough for Katharine Hepburn...
Aunt Rose’s Brownies
½ C. butter (1 stick)
4 ounces (4 squares) unsweetened baking chocolate
2 C. sugar
1 t. Vanilla
1 C. flour
Pinch of salt
Pinch of baking soda (optional)
1 C. nuts (optional)
Preheat oven to 350F.
Grease and flour 8x8 pan. (Or line with parchment, like the kids are doing these days--remember, this is an old recipe.)
Melt butter and chocolate over double boiler, stirring to combine. Cool.
Beat eggs. Add sugar gradually. Beat until light yellow and fluffy.
Add cooled chocolate mixture and vanilla and mix well.
Measure flour and add pinch of salt and baking soda to it, if using. Stir flour into chocolate mixture until incorporated.
Fold in nuts, if using.
Bake for 35-40 minutes, or until toothpick comes out clean (ish).
These brownies are very dense and moist, so you’re unlikely to ever get a totally clean toothpick. Just make sure they’re set in the center, and you’re good. If they start pulling away from the sides of the pan, it's high time to take them out of the oven.
Also: these are not the prettiest brownies. The surface will be all cracked and uneven, most likely sagging in the middle (although the pinch of baking soda might help with that). Do not give in to the temptation to frost or sprinkle with powdered sugar! They don’t need it, and it will ruin their pure brownie deliciousness. One taste is all you’ll need to know that their ugliness is a virtue. Besides, once cut into squares and packed in pretty cellophane and put in gift tins, none of that matters. None of it.
Because shortbread is so simple--who knew butter, flour, and sugar could taste so wonderful?--that technique is very important. Do NOT overwork the dough! Chill before baking! Do not overbake! And so forth. Here’s a good article on technique that also gives several variations you can try.
Here are some of my favorite recipes. The basic recipe includes good technique tips and is a little fussy; the other two are less demanding:
As described in the how-to article, you are not restricted to the shapes given in the recipes. You can add cornstarch to make it softer, or rice flour to make it crunchier. You can pat dough into a round, a square, or roll into a log and slice into cookies. You can dip in chocolate, sprinkle with sugar, or cover with icing. Shortbread just may be the perfect holiday recipe.
While quick breads aren’t often associated with holiday gift-giving, they are certainly delicious enough to give as gifts. I have a friend whose entire holiday baking regime consists of dozens of miniature loaves of banana bread. And her recipients look forward to getting that banana bread all year. (Sorry, she won't share her recipe.)
Quick breads are one of the easiest baked goods in existence. And if you want to make them fancier, you can use mini loaf pans (like my friend), you can add in special holiday ingredients you wouldn’t normally use (macadamias, dates, and chocolate chips), and you can ice them. Or, you can make a variety and give away mini loaf combinations like banana, spice bread, and orange cardamom. Wrap them in colored cellophane for both freshness and a nice presentation.
And for the record, one standard loaf pan recipe will fill 2-4 mini loaf pans (although in my experience it’s rarely more than 3). I know this isn’t terribly helpful, sorry! But it really is recipe dependent.
You can go with a classic banana bread recipe like this one, with more than 9 thousand positive reviews (!), or you can go with something a little fancier, like my all-time favorite banana bread from Food Network, which has orange zest and chocolate chips (and chocolate icing too, but I never use that because it doesn't need it). But if you want to make a simple quick bread a truly-over-the-top holiday gift, go ahead and use it.
Pumpkin Spice Bread
It’s a fairly new development, but the holidays don’t seem complete anymore without something pumpkin. Sure, pie counts, but just barely. If you want to up your holiday pumpkin game, try this delicious spicy pumpkin bread from AllRecipes.com. It is adored by thousands! I recommend adding raisins, chopped pecans, and icing!
Date Nut Bread
Did you know that date sales goes up by over 500% in the last two months of the year? Just kidding--I have no idea how much they go up during the holiday season. I only know that in my home, the holidays would be lacking without something datey. I have a recipe for sour cream date cookies that is to die for, but it does not qualify as easy, so it didn’t make this article. Instead, I’m posting this simple yet delicious date nut bread. I don’t have any suggestions to make it more holiday-ish. I think it’s pretty good just as it is.
Cardamom Orange Coffee Cake Loaf
Now this is one truly fancy quickbread. Cardamom is another spice I usually only use around the holidays. While most often associated with East Indian cuisine, it is also quite popular in Scandinavian baked goods, especially holiday cookies and cakes. My mother made what she calld Scandinavian pastry every Christmas. It was a rich, buttery coffee cake with cardamom in the dough. She would fill it with apples, blueberries, and nut paste. It was spectacular--but difficult enough that I have not attempted to re-create it.
I make a cardamom raisin yeast bread every year that is one of my absolute favorite things in the world--but once again, it doesn’t make it into the “easy” category, so I’m posting this Cardamom Orange Coffee Cake Loaf from Barbara Bakes instead.
As it stands, I think this recipe needs a few adjustments. A cup of chopped nuts mixed into the batter would be an excellent addition, and some chopped citron (candied orange peel) takes it over the top. I also like to drizzle some icing on it--not only does it add flavor, it also helps keeps the sliced almonds in place. You'll probably have to bake it a little longer than the given time; I usually do.
Just the words "candy making" can strike fear into the heart of the casual cook. But you know what? There are a ton of recipes that are so simple, you’ll wonder why you never tried them before. Fudges, barks, and certain toffees come to mind. And they are all swooningly, melt-in-your-mouth delicious. They also make excellent gifts!
Fanny Farmer Fudge
You will find a million fudge recipes online, and I'm sure they are all good. Maple fudge, peanut butter fudge, vanilla fudge...I’m sharing a solid performer that my mother, and her mother before her, made every Christmas.
Fanny Farmer Fudge
4-½ C. sugar
1 13oz can evaporated milk (not sweetened)
2 C. chopped nuts
18 oz. semi-sweet chocolate chips
½ C. butter (1 stick)
3 T. vanilla (or 1 T. almond) extract
Butter a 9x13 pan.
Bring sugar and milk to boil and boil for 6 minutes.
Add chocolate chips, butter, nuts, and extract. Stir well.
Immerse in a pan of cold water to cool.
Pour into buttered pan.
Cut into small squares when cooled.
Tip 1: I’ve shared the recipe as it was given to me, but I have occasionally had grainy results from this recipe. To avoid that problem, follow the instructions in this Alton Brown recipe: http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/alton-brown/chocolate-fudge-recipe.html
Tip 2: If you follow tip 1, you will need a candy thermometer to make this recipe.
White Chocolate Almond Bark
When I was a little girl, I bought my mother a box of almond bark every year for Christmas. It was her favorite candy (and she always shared a piece or two with me). Well, somewhere along the way, she discovered that she could make her own bark, and that it was every bit as good as the stuff from the candy store in the mall.
Bark is so easy, it almost doesn’t classify as homemade. You basically melt the chocolate, pour it over toasted almonds, let it cool, and break it into pieces. The only real secret is to toast the almonds. But it still makes a great gift--and most people don’t know just how easy it is!
I give a recipe for white chocolate almond bark (from the website "The View from Great Island"), but that’s just because it’s my personal favorite (and white chocolate is so elegant!). The beauty of bark is that you can use any chocolate, any nut, and any other additions (many people like dried fruit, and pumpkin seeds have also become popular in recent years).
Experiment, go wild, make it your own! There’s no wrong way to do this, as long as you don’t burn the chocolate and the nuts are toasted.
Most toffee recipes require a candy thermometer, and if you feel more secure using one, then go ahead. But here’s a simple recipe from Damn Delicious that does not, and it is knock-your-socks-off delicious. Feel free to try it with different nuts.
Note: Sometimes the butter can separate out of the toffee. This is usually caused by using a too-high temperature. Don’t go above medium heat, and you should be good.
This is a variation on toffee in which the hot mixture is poured over saltine crackers and topped (of course) with chocolate. Now, I know this doesn’t sound very elegant, but the recipe is unbelievably easy and absolutely delicious. (Many of you probably had this as kids--I didn't. I was introduced to it as an adult, so I still think it's kind of magical.) This one also does not require a candy thermometer, and I’ve never had it fail on me. It’s a really hard recipe to screw up. If you google for this, you'll find a million recipes, all very, very similar. Here's one I like, from Taste of Home.
Microwave Peanut Brittle
You can burn this if your microwave is too powerful and use the “high” setting (it’s all explained in the recipe). Otherwise, it’s easy peasy and oh-so-yummy.
Semi-Easy Chocolate Truffles
Okay; I'm not going to mislead you here. The truffle recipe itself is easy-peasy. But making the truffles? It depends how complicated you want to get. If you want to make a variety, you need to be careful to keep all the "finishes" separate. And the chocolate coating is messy to work with, and don't ask me how they get them so perfect in the shops! (This is why the nuts and other extras go on the outside rather than on the inside, like they do with most store-bought truffles.)
So, this truffle recipe from allrecipes.com is easy to make, and I love that it includes instructions for different flavors. But it takes some patience to get the truffles uniform in size, to not get the different flavors mixed together, and to get the coating to look pretty. If you've never made truffles before, you may want to try a half recipe and just one flavor. I suggest dipping in white chocolate and rolling in toasted coconut; you can see these on the plate in the pic above, and they are ahhh-maaay-zing. The other combos on the plate are dark chocolate with almonds and dark chocolate with raspberry powder (made by whazzing up freeze-dried raspberries in a spice grinder). All are delicious.
Signature Seasoning Blends
Homemade seasoning blends can be very nice, especially if you’ve come up with a special recipe of your own. Empty spice jars are cheap, and you can get them at many home and kitchen stores or just order them from Amazon. One afternoon spent mixing and bottling could reap gifts for dozens of people!
HINT: Pulverized dried mushrooms are an excellent addition to any seasoned salt!
Here are some ideas to get you started (or to just use if you’re short on time):
Ranch dressing mix
French Onion soup mix
Chinese 5 spice
Pumpkin pie spice
All of these and more can be found here:
I haven’t tried them all but the ones I have tried are very good (the French onion soup is amazing!). Gift worthy? I suppose that depends on the presentation; one bottle of taco seasoning probably isn’t going to impress anyone very much, but if it’s part of a set of 3 or more homemade blends, packaged in decorated bottles with instructions included (if necessary), it would make a very nice gift, indeed.
Infused sugars make nice gifts because they’re pretty and they smell terrific. They’re also very, very easy to make. The only problem is how to use them! So they can end up sitting in a cupboard unopened. To fix this problem, be sure to include ideas for use. Many flavored sugars make excellent rimming sugars for cocktails, for example. Or they might be nice sprinkled over a coffee cake instead of icing. This website gives lots of ideas:
Who doesn’t love caramel corn or cheesy popcorn? And it’s not only delicious, but it’s also semi-healthy. The only problem with giving away popcorn is finding decorative containers large enough. If you’ve gotten it as a gift yourself in the past, you may have those old tins stored away somewhere. If you do, this might be an excellent use for them.
This recipe for caramel corn is scrumptious. If you include the peanuts, it tastes a lot like Cracker Jack:
And here’s the same site’s recipe for cheese popcorn:
Note: You can find cheese powder in most grocery stores, usually near the popcorn. You can also order it from Amazon. As a last resort, use the packages out of the macaroni and cheese box. (It’s the same thing.
Note 2: You can also try mixing the caramel corn and cheesy corn together in what’s known as the “Chicago Blend.” Instructions can also be found on this website.
Note 3: You can try fancier flavoring as well, such as truffle salt popcorn (delicious but might get expensive), rosemary and parmesan, lemon pepper, Old Bay...the ideas are endless.
Hot Cocoa Mix
You can’t really go wrong with homemade hot cocoa mix, unless you fail to use a large enough container. This recipe from Ree Drummond’s site is a super-easy, mix-with-water variation:
If you want something fancier, here’s one with more “stuff” in it that requires milk rather than water:
We recommend going with the fancier one--and you might try it with just a smidge of cinnamon (Mexican hot chocolate) or cayenne pepper (Grown-up hot chocolate). About an eighth of a teaspoon.
Don’t forget to include instructions!
And finally, we come to what might be the easiest of all--not to mention the most fun--homemade booze! There are a number of categories, from vanilla extract (not really a booze but made with alcohol) to fancy liqueurs. I have made many different types over the years (including some that don’t fit into the “easy” category, like wine), and these are some of my favorites.
Note: There are SO many options for infused vodkas and liqueurs. These are just a few to get your creative juices flowing. Don’t be afraid to try fruit combinations, or add fresh herbs and other seasonings. The sky really is the limit here.
When I was a kid, my grandmother would pull out what she called her raspberry shrub at holiday time. It was an oversized mason jar of clear red liquid with raspberries puddled at the bottom. Everyone got a taste of it, including us kids, in tiny little cordial glasses that looked a lot like the one in this picture. It was very strong, but fruity, sweet, and delicious.
In retrospect, it may just have been an infused vodka with some sugar added. This is considered a type of shrub, but the more common type known today is made with vinegar and added to cocktails to flavor and sweeten them.
Shrub drinking vinegars are easy to make: one part fruit juice, one part vinegar, one part sugar. (Using cider vinegar adds a little more complexity than white vinegar.) Mix together and let it steep in the fridge for about a week.
What do you do with a drinking vinegar? You mix cocktails with it. While this is not a common practice, it can make a delicious, truly unique beverage. If you want to learn more, here’s an excellent primer on shrub-making (the drinking vinegars, not my grandmother’s):
Being as obscure as they are, a shrub would probably only be appreciated by a connoisseur of fine spirits--if you have one on your gift list, give it a try: it's an easy homemade gift that will impress the heck out of people.
Much simpler than the shrub is the infused vodka. Alcohol is extremely good at extracting flavors, so infused vodka is incredibly simple to make. Basically, you mix near equal parts of fruit and vodka and let it sit. Then you strain, bottle, and label--that’s all there is to it! And because the fruit does all the flavoring, you don’t even need to use expensive vodka. Middle shelf or even low shelf will do. (We won't tell.)
The only tricky part is making sure you filter the finished product very well. Little bits of fruit in the bottom will not only look bad, but may also require that the vodka be refrigerated. This article on thekitchn.com includes complete instructions, including ideas on how to use them.
Tip: Use in-season fruits, not only because they're at their peak flavor, but also because they're the most economical.
Oh, how fun are homemade liqueurs! Have you ever had freshly made limoncello? Or Bailey’s made from scratch? The possibilities are endless. And even better: for something like limoncello, or any simple fruit liqueur, it’s just a matter of adding simple syrup to an infused vodka. Oh, joy! Now that’s a holiday gift!
Here is Giada de Laurentis’ limoncello recipe:
If you've never had limoncello, you're missing out because it's delicious. You could pair it with some biscotti and have yourself a holiday theme.
Blackberry Liqueur (Creme de Mure)
Since blackberries are still around in mid- to late autumn, I thought a blackberry liqueur would be a delicious inclusion:
You could use raspberries, too, which would make this taste a lot like my grandmother's shrub.
This recipe doesn’t turn out exactly like the store-bought stuff; it’s better. Be sure to tell your giftees to keep refrigerated!
This is another very easy but delicious recipe:
Homemade Vanilla Extract
Okay, this isn’t a homemade drink, but it does require vodka, and it could not be simpler--two ingredients! And people appreciate it because, hey, vanilla extract is expensive.
I actually made vanilla extract with used vanilla bean pods. I just threw the scraped pods into a mason jar half-filled with vodka, and I wound up with some pretty tasty vanilla extract. I sort of stumbled upon this by accident, because our goal was to make a vanilla vodka for white Russians. But it sat for so long (we don’t drink a lot of white Russians around here), it turned into extract. I just leave the pods in there and use it now for both drinking and baking. Since we don't drink a lot of white Russians around here, it's lasted a good long while.
I’m not saying you should try the scraped pod version for gift giving, but then again, if it's early enough for it to steep, you totally could.
There you have it: a very incomprehensive list of very simple, very fun DIY food and drink projects for holiday gifts. It’s early in the season, so if you want to make your own gifts this year, there’s no excuse not to try a few of these ideas. And remember, Google is your friend! If none of our easy ideas tickled your creative bone, you can find a thousand different ideas online for cookies, bars, homemade liqueurs, craft projects, and just about anything else you can think of.
If we got you pointed in the right direction--and maybe even a little excited about it!--then we accomplished our goal.
Best wishes for a happy--and stress-free--holiday!