Although I've mostly exempted myself from the gift-buying frenzy by giving money to a charity in friends' names (and sending out custom-designed e-cards to the giftees), I DO like to give something extra that will afford more tangible—even hedonistic—pleasures that they can't get anywhere else. That means something homemade, and the easiest, most bang-for-the-buck DIY gifts I know of are food gifts. I have developed quite a repertoire over the years, like the simple homemade chocolates posted here last December.
The prunes are so intensely flavored they can be eaten almost as a candy, to finish off
These boozy prunes are among my favorites. A classic of southwest France, land of confit, pâté, and foie gras, they are steeped in a syrup spiked with Armagnac, the region's brandy. Since the prunes are pitted, they release some of their sweet juices to make a thick syrup, making little sugar necessary. The prunes are so intensely flavored they can be eaten almost as a candy, to finish off a meal. The Armagnac in the syrup tends to sneak up on people, and acts as an instant stress reliever.
The prunes are sublime as is or with a little crème fraiche, served over vanilla and coffee ice cream, and as an ingredient in pear or apple tarts. Since they last indefinitely, you can keep them on hand for impromptu desserts. I make them in big batches, keeping some for my own entertaining and packing the rest as gifts in canning jars. I always attach a tag suggesting ways to use the prunes, and to keep them refrigerated. (And if you haven't had time to let them mellow sufficiently before gifting them, write "Do not eat until ...".
Prepare at least one week before serving to allow the prunes to mellow.
Recipe: Prunes in Armagnac
Makes about three cups. The recipe can be scaled up indefinitely.
• 1 1/2 cups water
• 2 tablespoons sugar
• 1/2 vanilla bean
• 12 ounces large pitted prunes
• 3/4 cup Armagnac or Bas Armagnac, or more to taste (the flavor will mellow as the prunes sit)
In a small, non-reactive saucepan, combine the water and sugar. With a thin, sharp knife, split the vanilla bean lengthwise and scrape out the seeds. Add the seeds and bean to the pan and bring to a boil over moderately high heat, stirring until the sugar dissolves.
Place the prunes in a clean dry jar and pour the syrup over them. Allow to cool completely, then stir in the Armagnac. Refrigerate for at least one week before serving. Taste the syrup and add more Armagnac as necessary (it will mellow as the prunes sit).
Refrigerated, the prunes will keep indefinitely.