Even more than a gift thoughtfully selected from a store shelf, something made in your kitchen signals an investment of talent and time.
And that's no small matter, especially during the holidays, when people want to make meaningful connections, says Sally Pasley Vargas, author of "Food for Friends: Homemade Gifts for Every Season" (Ten Speed Press, $19.95).
Her book is a timeless resource for cooks at all levels. It includes recipes for classic food gifts such as orange marmalade and truffles as well as more original items such as tapenade, smoked fish paté, and lavender-lemon tea cakes. (See recipe.)
"You need no special training to create fabulous food gifts," Ms. Vargas says. You do need time, however. But holiday shopping also takes time - even when done with the click of a mouse.
If you want to turn your kitchen into a workshop for edible gifts, first get organized, urges Vargas. Plan your budget, how you want to wrap your gift, and how it will reflect your own style.
When the packaging is all set, start making the gifts. You could do it all in one night or split it into three nights, 40 minutes each night. The first night prepare the batters, doughs, or mixtures, and refrigerate them. The second night bake or cook, and the third night, wrap. If possible, recruit family members to help, and turn it into a fun project.
This Christmas, Vargas is giving her Concord, Mass., neighbors jam that she made last summer. She'll put it into a basket with dry ingredients for muffins and instructions for baking them. To a friend who cooks, she'll give a bottle of preserved lemons (see recipe) or pickled jalapeño peppers.
Lora Brody, also a cookbook author, is giving her new neighbors in Wrentham, Mass., marble Milano cakes (marble pound cake with a streusel of Milano cookies). Her card will say "Happy holidays, and thank you for putting up with our construction mess."
Ms. Brody is also making chocolate sand dollars as gifts, the recipe for which will appear in her next book, "The Cape Cod Table," due out next spring.
Brody and Vargas both wrap with cellophane, which Vargas calls her "secret weapon" because it adds sparkle to any gift.
Presentation aside, both agree that a homemade food gift is one of nourishment - for the giver and for the receiver.
3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup almonds
1-1/2 cups sugar
Finely grated zest and juices of 2 lemons (1/3 to 1/2 cup juice)
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
6 eggs, at room temperature
1/2 cup buttermilk
2 tablespoons dried lavender flowers
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Butter and flour two 8-by-3-3/4-by-2-1/2-inch disposable aluminum loaf pans.
Sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt onto a piece of waxed paper. Set aside.
In a food processor, grind the almonds with 2 tablespoons of the sugar. Set aside.
Combine the remaining sugar and the lemon zest in a mixing bowl. Add the butter. With a wooden spoon or electric mixer set on medium-high speed, beat for about 3 minutes, or until very light and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, beating for about 30 seconds after each addition and scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary. Beat in the lemon juice.
Add half of the flour and beat at low speed. Add all of the buttermilk and then the remaining flour, beating on low speed after each addition just until the ingredients are blended. Finally, add the ground almonds and lavender flowers, again mixing just until combined.
Spoon the batter into the prepared pans and smooth the tops with the back of a spoon.
Bake for 55 to 60 minutes, until the top is golden brown and a toothpick inserted into the center of a loaf comes out clean. Remove from the oven, let cool in the pan on a rack for 10 minutes, and then turn the cakes out onto the rack to cool.
Wrapped in plastic or aluminum foil, the cakes will keep for 2 to 3 days at room temperature and for up to 3 months in the freezer.
Makes 2 loaves.
A fellow cook would love a jar of preserved lemons, perhaps bundled with one of Paula Wolfert's excellent books on Mediterranean or Moroccan cooking. For the uninitiated, add a tag to suggest using these to flavor sauces, braised dishes, vegetable stews, roast chicken, fish, rice, or even tuna salad.
8 or 9 small Meyer lemons, or 5 to 7 small regular lemons, plus a few additional lemons for juice
About 1/2 cup kosher salt
2 bay leaves
2 (2-inch-long) cinnamon sticks
6 whole cloves
Scrub the lemons. If they are not organic, immerse them in boiling water for 30 seconds to remove any pesticides and wax. Cool them in a bowl of ice water.
Make 2 deep vertical incisions in each lemon to divide it into quarters, but don't cut all the way through. You will have a lemon "flower." If the lemons are large, you may just want to quarter them and arrange them nicely in the jar after salting.
Sprinkle 1 tablespoon of the salt in the bottom of each sterilized jar. Sprinkle the inside of each lemon "flower" with a rounded tablespoon of salt and pack into the jars. Press down as you pack the lemons to release some juice and to fit as many as you can into each jar. Wedge a bay leaf and cinnamon stick between the lemons and the side of the jars. Add the cloves. If needed, add additional lemon juice to cover the lemons. Seal the jars.
Let stand for 1 week at room temperature, inverting the jars occasionally to distribute the salt and juice. Then store the jars in the refrigerator for up to 6 months. When the rinds soften (about 2 weeks), the lemons are ready. To use, rinse the lemon, scrape away the pulp, and dice the rind. If white crystals appear, the lemons may still be used. Just rinse them first.
Makes 2 pint jars.