We are all so busy nowadays and quickly grabbing something from the store is an efficient and easy way to tick the boxes off your gift giving to do list; you’ll get no argument from me! But that’s what makes homemade gifts so special, taking the time to make something from scratch and presenting it to someone who also has a lot on their plate (no pun intended!). Think about teachers, neighbors, friends, hostesses, as well as those who help keep our worlds moving smoothly, like school bus drivers and postmen. Those people (and their families) will appreciate the time spent creating thoughtful gifts for them.
Christmas is naturally a wonderful season to share homemade presents with those around us. But these gifts work well all year round, anytime you would like to say “thank you” or just brighten someone’s day. My passion lies in the kitchen, so baking gifts is where I turn. Your strength may lie in photography, flower arranging, knitting, crafting, gardening, etc. If you’re able to, please consider sharing your talents!
Below are some of my favorite homemade gifts to give… nothing exotic, over the top, or containing hard to find ingredients. But, they are all heartfelt and give me great joy to share.
Plum Pudding is a traditional Christmas dessert and very common in England and Ireland. For Americans, the name itself is rather confusing as this dessert contains neither plums nor is it a pudding in the Jell-O sense of the word. The “plums” are actually a pre-Victorian term for raisins and pudding is a reference to dessert in general. Some compare plum pudding to fruit cake, but I respectfully disagree. My family’s plum pudding is not heavy and dense like a fruitcake. It is light in texture, but very rich in flavor; heady with cinnamon, cloves, mace, and brandy. Served with a dollop of chilled hard sauce which begins melting as soon as it hits the warm pudding… it’s like tasting Christmas.
As I discovered during research, plum pudding has a lot of history. Dating back to medieval times, it is a steamed or boiled cake traditionally made on the Sunday before Advent begins. This generous lead time (and a bit of brandy) allows the cake to “ripen” during the weeks before Christmas. In addition to raisins, the cake contains nuts, breadcrumbs, sugar, suet, eggs, milk, brandy, and spices. The highlight of Christmas dinner, the pudding is steamed again to warm through, doused with more brandy, topped with a sprig of holly and set ablaze just as it’s presented to guests.
My family’s plum pudding recipe dates back over 100 years. Aunt Annie, born in the 1880s, was my grandmother’s aunt. Though I don’t know where she got the recipe, I do know that my grandmother made it throughout my father’s childhood, and then passed the recipe on to my mother, who continues to make it to this day. The handwritten recipe from my grandmother refers to the pudding as “Aunt Annie’s Plum Duff.” It seems that centuries ago, the pudding would have been steamed or boiled in cloth, but during the Victorian era the cloth was replace by pudding molds. That said, modern recipes for “duff” do exist and usually instruct the reader to boil the pudding in cloth rather than “pudding” recipes that use a mold. Perhaps my great great aunt originally boiled her pudding in cloth? Unfortunately, I’ll never know. What I do know is that my grandmother steamed her puddings in coffee cans lined with buttered wax paper. And today, I use pudding molds.
This year, the pudding almost didn’t happen. It is getting tougher and tougher to find suet (NOT the kind you get at the garden store to feed the birds). I actually stumbled across some quite by chance at a butcher shop in Boston just a couple of weeks ago. The other ingredients are pretty standard pantry items, and though it’s a two day process, most of the time is hands-off and the technique is very easy. Once the mixture is in the molds, they are steamed for a couple of hours and cooled. After cooling, they are removed from the molds. The molds are washed, the puddings rewrapped in clean parchment, returned to the molds, splashed with more brandy, and tucked away in the fridge until Christmas Day. Before serving, the pudding is steamed again to warm through. Hard Sauce is passed along with it… a creamy combination of butter, confectioners sugar, and- you guessed it, more brandy!
What does it say about me as a child that even then I loved Aunt Annie’s Plum Duff? I knew that this was no ordinary dessert… a generations old recipe, a “cake” steamed in coffee cans on the stove, then steamed again and served with a boozy butter + sugar concoction, plus the whole operation completed a month in advance. This was definitely not happening at my friends’ houses.
I am so grateful for this splattered and tattered heirloom recipe, a direct connection to my past, written in my grandmother’s hand. If you are up for an old fashioned dessert, do try this. You don’t even need to light it on fire… but if you do, please have a fire extinguisher nearby. Safety first!
2½ cups of raisins
1 cup finely chopped fresh white beef suet (pick apart and remove membrane, then chop)
1 cup chopped walnuts
1½ jiggers brandy (4½ Tablespoons)
4 cups lightly packed breadcrumbs (large loaf of day old bread, crusts removed, and pulled apart)
2 cups milk to which 2 teaspoons baking soda has been added
2 eggs, well beaten
1 cup packed brown sugar
1½ teaspoons cinnamon
1½ teaspoons ground cloves
¼ teaspoon mace
Combine raisins, suet, walnuts, and brandy. Mix well, cover, and refrigerate overnight.
The next day-
Butter molds and line with parchment paper.
Combine breadcrumbs, raisin-walnut mixture, milk, eggs, brown sugar, cinnamon, cloves, and mace. Mix well.
Carefully spoon pudding mixture into lined molds, filling 2/3 full. Top each with another piece of parchment, then covered with lids. If you have extra pudding, it can be steamed in a buttered mason jar.
Steam in gently simmering water for 2 hours. Maintain water level so that it comes halfway up the sides of the molds.
Serve warm with hard sauce or soft custard sauce.
The pudding can be eaten the same day, but traditionally it is allowed to “ripen” for at least a week, or as long as a year. If you aren’t serving it right away, remove molds from water and allow to cool. Carefully remove puddings from molds, peeling away parchment. Thoroughly wash and dry and molds, then reline with parchment and return puddings to molds. Drizzle a splash of brandy on top of each, cover with additional piece of parchment and place lids on top. Refrigerate until ready to use. Before serving, steam puddings again for 2-3 hours. Serve with hard sauce* or soft custard sauce.
My grandparents grew up in Ireland and for as long as I can remember my grandmother’s preferred chocolate was Cadbury’s. Among all the Cadbury choices, the Fruit and Nut bar was her favorite. However, it wasn’t always easy to get Cadbury chocolates in the US so she had to find an alternative to satisfy her sweet tooth. Success was achieved when Nanny discovered the Chunky Bar. Do you remember Chunky Bars? They were thick cubes of chocolate studded with nuts and raisins, all wrapped in silver foil.
I’m not sure which came first… did the Fruit and Nut Bar or Chunky Bar inspire this bark, or did the taste memories come flooding back after the first bite? In either case, this treat would definitely meet Nanny’s approval. It’s the perfect blend of a fruit and nut studded candy bar and chocolate bark. Like a candy bar, the sweetness of the dried fruit, partnered with the crunch of the nuts, encased in dark chocolate is such a fantastic combination. Spread thin and topped with more dried fruit and toasted nuts brings it closer to a bark. Sprinkled with sea salt pushes it over the top. Excellent with a glass of red wine after dinner or a quick pick me up mid-day; another option is to leave out a small platter of the bark so that every time you walk by you grab a nibble. Not that I’ve ever done that. No judging here.
Dark Chocolate Bark with Toasted Nuts, Dried Fruit, and Flaky Sea Salt
12 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped (or one 11.5oz bag of bittersweet chocolate chips)
2/3 cup mixed toasted nuts, roughly chopped (such as walnuts, almonds, cashews)
2/3 cup mixed dried fruit (such as raisins, cherries, blueberries, cranberries)
sprinkling of flaked sea salt
Line small baking sheet with foil.
Melt chocolate in heatproof medium sized bowl set over saucepan of simmering water, stirring until melted and smooth.
Stir in half of toasted nuts and half of mixed dried fruit. Pour melted chocolate mixture onto foil, spreading with offset spatula to thickness of scant 1/4 inch.
Scatter remaining nuts and dried fruit over chocolate. Cool slightly. Sprinkle with flaked sea salt.
Chill until chocolate is firm, about 30 minutes. Peel off foil and cut bark into irregular pieces.
Quick post today. It’s a busy time of year for everybody… school concerts, Nutcracker performances, decorating the house and tree, sending cards, shopping for gifts, and events every weekend. It’s incredibly easy to become overwhelmed and miss the magic and beauty that is Christmas… the twinkling lights, carols being sung, and the warm spicy scent of pine. When I do feel like I’m becoming engulfed in the frenzy, I escape to the kitchen, put on some Christmas music and start baking… nothing elaborate though, believe me! You will not find homemade gingerbread houses or meticulously cut out and decorated cookies worthy of the front cover of a magazine. I’m more of drop or roll cookie maker (think gingersnaps or Mexican Wedding Cakes) and quick bread baker. Being in the kitchen is like therapy for me, and if I tried to make photo shoot worthy decorated Christmas cookies, I would royal ice and silver dragee my way straight into real therapy!
This Cranberry Nut Bread is quick, coming together in about 15 minutes, then off to the oven for an hour. Golden brown crust, slightly tart, and studded with cranberry jewels and sweet pecans, the bread is perfect for breakfast, late afternoon snack, or even dessert. It’s also ideal to share with family and friends over a cup of tea, enjoying each other’s company and the season for even just a quiet moment or two.
*recipe adapted from Kathleen’s Bake Shop Cookbook
2 cups all-purpose flour
¾ cup granulated sugar
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon baking soda
3 Tablespoons unsalted butter
¾ cup orange juice (fresh or bottled)
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 Tablespoon freshly grated orange zest
1 ½ cups coarsely chopped cranberries
¾ cup chopped pecans
Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease a 9x5x3-inch loaf pan.
In a large bowl, stir together flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, and baking soda. Cut butter into flour with a pastry blender. Stir in orange juice, lightly beat egg, and zest. Fold in cranberries and nuts. Scrape into prepared loaf pan.
Bake for 50-60 minutes, or until a cake tester inserted into the center comes out clean.
These candied peanuts have been in heavy rotation at our house for years. The recipe is my go to for cocktail hour, teacher and hostess gifts, bake sales, and late night snacks. Beyond simple, the nuts are made on top of the stove, in one pan, with 5 ingredients, and done in 10 minutes. It doesn’t get any easier!
The recipe is adapted from one by David Leibovitz. An expat living in Paris, David shares his talents with the world as a blogger, cookbook author, and former pastry chef at Chez Panisse. The original recipe calls for raw peanuts which I have yet to find at my local store, so instead, I substitute roasted (or blanched) and unsalted peanuts.* These are found in the bulk section of the grocery store.
I feel compelled to warn you… the nuts are highly addictive and sought after. Friends have described them as “crack,” but my favorite nickname is Dirty Nuts. A year or so ago, I shared the recipe with my niece, who wanted to make them for a holiday party. Though Emily told everyone they were “Candied Peanuts” one of her friends, after pulling himself away from the bowl, promptly announced the peanuts were so amazing, they were “dirty.” And the name Dirty Nuts stuck.
Whatever you call them, know that you will create uncontrollable cravings in your friends and family. Gentle appeals may turn into begging, and finally outright demands. You’ll have to keep up, satisfying their needs as well as keeping your own stash topped off. Thankfully, because the recipe is so quick and easy, the task should be manageable… or just start sharing the recipe (that’s what I did!).
*I have used roasted and salted peanuts, but the recipe doesn’t work as well. I’m not sure why, but the sugar doesn’t seize the same way. The results have been best and most consistent with unsalted peanuts.
2 cups raw peanuts (or almonds)
1 cup sugar
1/3 cup water
1 teaspoon chili powder (or to taste)
½ teaspoon cinnamon (or to taste)
sprinkle of coarse sea salt
In a wide, heavy-duty skillet, mix the peanuts with the sugar and water. Cook the ingredients over moderate heat, stirring frequently, until the liquid seizes up. It will take a few minutes. The peanuts will get crusty and the sugar will crystallize; they will appear dry and sandy.
Lower the heat and keep stirring. The crystalized sugar will begin to liquefy again. Stir the peanuts into any syrup forming in the bottom of the pan, coating them as much as possible.
Continue stirring and coating the peanuts in the syrup as it darkens without burning the peanuts or the syrup. If the mixture starts to smoke, remove it from heat and stir. The peanuts are done when they are as dark as you’d like them to be.
Right before they’re done, remove from heat and sprinkle the peanuts with the chili powder, cinnamon, and sizable pinch of flaky salt. Stir them a couple of times, then immediately spread the peanuts onto a silicone mat or parchment lined baking sheet.
Allow the peanuts to cool completely, and then break up any clumps. Enjoy watching them disappear! If you have any leftovers, store in an airtight container.