My great-auntie Gertie, she of the rabbit-skinning speed record (Portly passim), used to keep a drawer full of gifts in her dressing table. Not ones she had bought in advance, the sort of thing you stash away on the off-chance you’ll match it to a suitable recipient, but ones she’d been given. It was not uncommon to get back the Christmas present you’d sent her a year or two earlier, neatly re-wrapped.
She wasn’t mean, far from it, she just came from a thrifty generation (or possibly felt underwhelmed by the deluge of lavender-scented soaps and embroidered hankies deemed suitable for old ladies). I’m not suggesting you should channel my late great-aunt but a lot of us, if we aren’t already feeling the pinch thanks to the pandemic, are worried about our economic futures. If there was ever a Christmas when home-made gifts are going to come into their own, this is surely it.
This is the second part of a two part post – check back on last week’s for online gifts to buy. Today, though, a few suggestions for things you might like to make either for yourself or to give away.
First, a recipe new to these pages: chocolate mendiants. They are traditional French sweets, little chocolate discs studded with nuts, candied flowers and/or dried fruits. Originally they represented the four monastic orders and the colours of the toppings referenced the colours of the monks’ robes: raisins for the Augustinians, hazelnuts for the Carmelites, dried fig for the Franciscans and almonds for the Dominicans.
Nowadays you’ll see them topped with anything from flowers to candied citrus peel. I’ve used pistachios, chopped candied orange (see further down the post for a recipe) and freeze-dried raspberry. You’ll only need a tablespoon or two of each, plus 100g of 70% dark chocolate and 100g white chocolate, preferably one with a high cacao content (look for 35%).
Take two sheets of baking paper and mark 20 small circles on each, using an egg cup as a guide. Turn them over and place them on baking sheets. Stick them down at the corners with a dab of butter if they try to curl up.
Break the chocolate into small pieces. Put the two colours in separate bowls and set each over a pan of simmering water, making sure the bottoms of the basins don’t touch the water. Melt the chocolate, stirring occasionally.
Using two teaspoons, spoon the chocolate onto the circles on the baking paper, working in batches of six. Carefully arrange your chosen toppings on each one, and continue until you’ve used up all the chocolate. If it starts to solidify, put the basin back over the pan of water until it’s just melted again.
Leave the mendiants to cool and set, but don’t put them in the fridge, otherwise they’ll lose their glossiness. Once they’re hard, peel them off the paper. Box them or put them into ribbon-tied cellophane bags, but handle them carefully so you don’t leave fingerprints. They’ll keep for a week.
Gingerbread: another outing for my laughably badly iced gingerbread men. Some day I’ll get around to re-photographing this but the one wearing a mankini still makes me smirk, the reindeer version is fun and the gingerbread recipe is actually very good.
For beautiful, creative, elegantly decorated alternatives, you might like to look at Thida Bevington’s Christmas cookies. You can find her over on Instagram at thida.bevington.
Truffles: rather than waste the boozy damsons when I strained my fruit gin, I added them to chocolate truffles. If you don’t have a bottle of home-made hooch ready to be decanted, follow the link in the post to the River Cottage recipe, which offers several variations on the fruity, chocolatey theme.
Home-made jams, vinegars, pickles and curds: there are lots of recipes on the blog (please use the search box) but the raspberry curd in this post is particularly good and if you want something speedy, try this quick-pickled beetroot recipe. It may not be glamorous but it’s excellent with cold cuts and cheese and a good addition to a hamper.
Bonus: the colours of both are already festive – if you’re giving them as gifts just pretty them up with a fabric lid cover and tie with a ribbon. Or if you have some brambles in the freezer, how about this blackberry vinegar?
Ricciarelli: these Italian macaroons are best eaten the day they’re made, so scoff them yourself, unless you really like your neighbours. Also a great way of using up any leftover egg whites if you’ve made the raspberry curd.
Biscotti: Staying in Italy, Christmas-spiced biscotti make a lovely gift. You may find you don’t want to give them away, so make a double batch.
Christmas Tree Spice Bread: another one mainly for home consumption but a fun way to make a tear-and-share the kids will enjoy. This looks a lot better in real life than it does in my photo. No, I’m not re-sharing it. You’ll have to look at the post.
Candied orange peel: it doesn’t get much more Christmassy than this recipe from Mary Cadogan. Dip into chocolate for added comfort and joy.
Home-made gravadlax: probably not one to pop in the post but cheaper than buying the ready-sliced stuff and you can add your own flavour variations. Plan ahead on this because although the effort is minimal it takes a few days to prep.
Cocoa Nib and Hazelnut Croquant: easy to make, easily postable and really delicious, I’d be chuffed to bits to find this under the tree.
Christmas Brownies: chocolatey, fudgy and gently spiced, these would warm the cockles of even Scrooge’s stony heart. I’ll have the crispy corner bit, please.
NB: Last Saturday’s Guardian Feast devoted its entire edition to home-made gifts including Felicity Cloake’s stollen and other ideas from the likes of Rachel Roddy, so if you missed it in print, have a look online.