Dreaded fruitcake aside, food makes the perfect gift

Fruitcake isn't a food, it's a punch line. To wit: What's rainbow-colored, heavier than a bowling ball, and has the half-life of plutonium?

Fact is, the gift of food at the holiday season - and really all year - can be so much more than palming off one of those fruitcake doorstops on unsuspecting friends. It becomes a wonderful opportunity to give something from the tips of your fingers and the bottom of your heart.

Homemade food gifts are the grown-up equivalent of hand-painted rock paperweights or popsicle-stick Christmas tree ornaments. Just as you would no more trade your children's fingerpainted Picassos for all the crystal at Tiffany's, your friends will feel the same preference for your orange marmalade or Sugar and Spiced Pecans (see recipe, right).

Adults appreciate the difference between store-bought and homemade. They'll know when you labored in your kitchen over those Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Sugar Cookies. The edges are a little burned, the shapes imperfect, but you cared so much that expensive and impressive aren't important.

It needn't take hours to personalize a gift: A special basket filled with mixed apples or an antique bottle filled with vinegar flavored with a snipping of tarragon from your herb garden, and topped with a fancy bow, will do.

But this time of year, the possibilities grow cornucopially. Maybe there's a special recipe that's been in your family for years (be sure to include the recipe as a bonus). Or perhaps you saw Martha Stewart whip up an exact replica of the Eiffel Tower in hand-rolled, squid-ink pasta (from her own squid) and you want to give it a shot. (Note: For timely results, begin all Stewart Christmas projects on the previous Labor Day.)

Bread machines are in many kitchens these days and a fresh herbed loaf always makes a welcome treat, especially when wrapped in a colorful dish towel. A lovely container can remain and be a reminder long after tummies have been satisfied.

People often bemoan the commercialism of the holidays, the pressure to spend and spend, the need to give the best, the biggest, the brightest. A gift from the kitchen is a chance to mitigate some of that angst and get back to basics; a chance to give something that no one else can, to share something others might not, and to say "happy holidays" in the most personal of ways.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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