Around the holidays every year, I find myself looking for packages with West Virginia stamps, for I know the treasures they will hold: a blue ball jar with a zinc top full of pfeffernusse--the hard spicy cookies that are meant to be dunked in strong coffee--an Appalachian biscotti, or a bottle of dandelion wine, tasting curiously like a French sauterne, or a brick of cheese made of milk from local cows, aged in a cool cellar.
Aside from the simple deliciousness of these homemade gifts, they represent the time and effort of my generous friends on my behalf, all the more precious to me because I know how busy they are. These gifts are unique, one of a kind, fleeting--refreshing in an age of glossy, mass-produced things. I love getting them.
Once you know this simple method for handling chocolate, you can improvise endlessly on how you embellish them.
So a homemade gifts are what I often give to friends who seem to have everything, or to bring as a house gift or token. My motives in giving these homemade gifts are not entirely altruistic. Making my own allows me to avoid holiday shopping mania, to give gifts that have meaning and connection, an antidote to "bought" treasures that my friends have too much of. Protective of my time, I give food gifts that are simple to make, and that I like to eat myself.
Shards of chocolate embedded with surprising flavors and crunchy elements make terrific gifts for much less expense than pricey "artisan-made" chocolates. Once you know this simple method for handling chocolate, you can improvise endlessly on how you embellish them: stud them with Marcona almonds with a dusting of Pimenton de la Vera, or pistachios with sea salt, or curry powder, or dried cherries and lavender, for example.
Photo by Ellen Silverman
Once the sheet of chocolate hardens, you break it into shards and pack it as a gift--and keep some back to serve at your own dinner parties, or as a restorative when your spirits are flagging. (For a step-by-step guide to making homemade chocolate shards, click here.)
Slow-roasted almonds with olive oil and sea salt are my "faux Marcona", the delicious almonds from Spain that can be hard to find, less-than-fresh, and really expensive. They are a perfect instant hors d'oeuvres with cocktails or a glass of chilled manzanilla sherry. In fact, I often bundle a half or whole bottle of the sensational, bone dry La Gitana manzanilla with a bag of my home-roasted almonds: a truly unexpected holiday gift.
There are many ways to package chocolate or almonds as gifts: Pack into cardboard candy boxes (lined with wax or parchment paper), bought or saved from a local bakery; antique or repurposed tins (available at flea markets, yard sales and Ebay); or paper or clear cello bags bought from your local market (they will often sell them by the piece) or online at Paper Mart.