Real Food Right Now and How to Cook It: Holiday Gift Edition!

As the annual holiday season commences in earnest, we're thinking of foodies and their loved ones looking for nifty, affordable, delicious and (if we do say so) gorgeous edibles that make truly priceless gifts. Whether you're an enthusiastic beginner or a longtime homemade candy pro, if you want a fun, festive family project for a long winter's eve, here are some delectable treats courtesy of our Real Food Right Now bloggers. But be careful: once your loved ones or colleagues get a taste of these, you may be fielding requests for years to come!

Soft Honey Caramels with Smoked Sea Salt – Megan Saynisch

OK, I’m not gonna lie – these caramels are a bit of a labor of love. Not because the actual caramels take long to cook, but because they are soft they require you to cut little squares of parchment or waxed paper to wrap them in. (I confess I leave the task of cutting parchment squares to my husband, who is a wiz with scissors.) However, you will be rewarded with delicious little homemade caramels that are sure to impress. I like to stick them in cute little holiday cellophane bags to give away as little gifts, or tuck them onto a cookie platter for an unexpected surprise.

Some of the best gifts I’ve gotten over the years are antique cookbooks, which I collect. This recipe comes from one of those, given to me several years ago by my husband. Dating from 1948, the Puerto Rican Cook Book by Elizabeth B.K. Dooley is a fascinating look into upper class Puerto Rican life in the 1940s. Its table of contents includes entire chapter devoted to both “Cocktails” and “Rum Drinks” (my kind of book!), along with chapters called “Vanilla and Ginger” and “Honey

Recipes.” It is from the chapter on honey that I’ve adapted this caramel recipe.

Mandarin Orange Marmalade – Kim O’Donnel

‘Tis the season’ – for winter citrus! And for this preserving princess, that means the marmalade workshop is up and running. By definition, marmalade is a “jam” of citrus fruit that includes the rind. The result is sweet and sour, with a distinctive texture.

As an avid preserver, I’m frequently asked if canning saves money. For folks without a garden bounty, the answer is probably not, at least in the short-term. But at gift-giving season, canning makes a lot of economic sense.

To wit: I just put up 14 four-ounce jars of mandarin orange marmalade for about 30 bucks, including a case of jars. Per gift, I’ve spent just a little over two dollars – how’s that for thrifty?

It’s true: marmalade does require the extra step of preparing and softening the rind. When using thicker-skinned (and more sour) citrus fruits such as grapefruit and blood oranges, marmalade can be a two or three-day affair, an off-putting proposition for the aspiring home canner. That’s why I make a beeline for the Satsuma mandarin orange, which has a mild-flavored, manageable skin, making marmalade projects a snap.

The result:  Sweet yet bright flavor notes accented with textures of rind (but not too much), and a burst of sunshine in a jar during the darkest time of the year. The recipe is adapted from West Coast Cooking by Greg Atkinson.

Flavored Sea Salts – Leslie Hatfield

Last year, my friend Kristy gave me a package of sample-sized sea salts for Christmas, and because my husband and I love eating well but don't usually spring for ingredients like fancy salt, this gift made us happy every time we reached for it. We loved all the different textures and were intrigured by the flavored salts, so it wasn't long before I was looking up recipes to tinker with. I was most inspired by Punk Domestics roundup of flavorted salt recipes, but I'm also drooling over this recipe for vanilla salt (for Katie's cookies or Megan's caramels, maybe).

Turns out, making flavored salts requires little time and minimal effort. Depending on the moisture level of the ingredients you're working with, you may need to let it dry out, either naturally or in the oven at a low temperature, but that's really it, time-wise.

As far as cost goes, there's a lot of flexibility in making flavored salts – you can spring for the fancy fleur de sal or use what you've got in your cupboard. Same goes for the spices you mix them with, which can range from truffles to orange peel. As with anything, the fresher and higher quality the better.  

Speaking of labeling, here's where you can afford to have some fun, since you expended so little effort in the kitchen. Get some cute little jars (quilted jelly jars would work in a pinch, but clear glass will be prettier) and make some neat little labels. Have fun with it!

Thick and Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookies – Katie Sweetman

The classics never go out of style, whether it's clothing or food. And what could be more classic than chocolate chip cookies? When giving a seasonal food gift, a tin of cookies with a big red bow on top beats fruitcake every time!

This is my go-to recipe, which I stumbled upon sometime ten years ago after trying recipe after recipe looking for "the one." You know what I mean, that perfect recipe that never fails, from pizza dough to chocolate chip cookies.

In an effort to give credit where credit is due, some sleuthing about reveals that the recipe likely originated in Baking Illustrated, published in 2004 by Cooks Illustrated Magazine. I've adapted it slightly after years of tinkering. While baking is a science, there's also wiggle room. Feel free to add more or less chocolate chips depending on your liking.

I also sprinkle each ball of cookie dough with sea salt before sticking into the oven because salty = sweet = awesome.  (Just check out my friend Megan's soft honey caramels with smoked sea salt!) And bonus points if you serve them to a loved one fresh from the oven. Happy holidays!