Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without the obligatory food gift. Whether it’s a caddy of fancy tea or some homemade relish, we hope to extend the period of gastronomical indulgence beyond the last week of December. Long-life preserves, granola or spiced fudge can be stored in the stuffed ‘junk food cupboard’ (which, of course, everyone has) to be opened on a particularly miserable January evening, and a mere morsel can transport you back to snoozing on the sofa, your paper crown tipsily askew.
Instead of splashing out on gourmet groceries, however, it is always more fun and rewarding to give homemade treats. The Do It Yourself Christmas Hamper is the appropriate gift from someone who enjoys cooking (check), has run out of spending money (check), and has a lot of free evenings (check). Thus, as Christmas Day draws closer, isn’t it preferable to mix, bake and simmer in a warm citrus-spice scented kitchen instead of dashing round the shops in a mad frenzy?
What you include in your hamper, or equivalent (I guess pillowcases can work, although rather informally), is up to you – whatever you enjoy cooking and your recipients enjoy eating! Choosing my food gifts this year has, naturally, not gone to plan due to the slight issue that I don’t have an oven, so ideas have been altered and there’s been more thinking outside the box than I can handle. Likewise, the soon to be regular feature, ‘Baking with Tony’ introduced us both to the unknown – the daunting task of vegan baking as we tackled vegan treats for his brother.
With all that considered, every hamper is different so this is a mere guideline based on my own experiences. The main focus should be to provide a variety of sweet and savoury, crunchy and jammy, so your recipients continue to be tempted until it has all disappeared.
The sweet-sour accompaniment to a Ploughman’s or a cold meats and cheese dinner, therefore ideal for a Christmas supper or a Boxing Day leftovers lunch. Remarkably simple to make, chutneys consist of fruit or vegetables, vinegar and sugar, plus fragrant aromatics such as chilli, ginger, or cinnamon. My favourite is the simple caramelised onion chutney; the onions have been reduced to a sticky jam, and by adding a few glugs of fruity red wine the whole mixture is shiny and sweet with a heady tang of booze.
A bottle of sweet chilli sauce is a fridge essential, so I made glimmering jars of ruby red sweet chilli jam, with a slight bitterness from red pepper and a kick of spice. After a lot of vigilant chopping of eight peppers, ten chillies and a bulb of garlic all the ingredients were thrown into the pan with a lot of sugar and vinegar, eventually boiling violently like a mad dog frothing at the mouth. Before long the kitchen was filled with the sickly-sweet smell of syrupy vinegar as it began to evaporate and bubble thickly, then was finally dolloped sloppily into sterilised jars.
Jam is one of my favourite foods… if you can call it a food, what is essentially liquid sugar and fruit pulp… Sadly though, jam isn’t seasonal at Christmas, unless you’re incredibly organised and made your Christmas jam in September. The other option is marmalade, a satisfactory substitute, but improved with a bit of Christmas fizz.
Buck’s Fizz marmalade spread generously on toast is incongruous with the healthy January breakfast of bran flakes. It is now time to acquaint them as the potent, yet innocent, hit of prosecco is the sunny start to the dull, grey mornings. I found a lovely boozy marmalade recipe and then proceeded to up-end a prosecco bottle over the bubbling syrupy fruit, find the adapted recipe below! (And, yes, I own a personalised gift stamp! It does make me a bit trigger-happy though, stamping random bits of paper, anything that stays still long enough.)
Biscuits and/or crackers
I haven’t failed to notice that, so far, all these Christmas gifts contain alcohol – in keeping with the theme of merriment. To reign it in let’s consider the humble cracker or biscuit.
Some may see either as a simple vehicle for cheese or pâté, or with a necessary coating in chocolate, crumbly and dry, with little flavour of its own. To those people I say where is your festive enthusiasm! Think of all the scents and smells of Christmas and channel them into your biscuit making – citrus and spice shortbread dunked in liquid chocolate and scattered with roughly chopped pistachios, gingerbread with smooth vanilla icing, shimmery pink, orange and red boiled sweets melted down like stained glass windows. Italian biscotti has become synonymous with Christmas due to the fillings of nuts, dried fruits, spices and chocolate, and is served as an evening snack alongside tea and coffee.
Meanwhile, a light, crisp cracker, freckled with rosemary, black pepper or sea salt, can be slathered with creamy cheeses, its tender crumb a mouth-watering match for the soft salty slice Wensleydale or scoop of Brie. Pack these delicate crisps in smart card boxes or cellophane bags tied with a ribbon and personalised tag.
This category is never-ending. It is the length of your imagination, only limited by the necessity of cellophane wrapping. Crunchy sugared nuts, honeycomb studded brownies, chocolate bark jewelled with peppermint candy canes, dried cranberries or salted pretzels.
Best of all are mince pies. A simple bite of Christmas, rich with syrupy dried fruit and encased in fragile, buttery pastry. I have too many memories of a disappointing shop-bought mince pie – a stiff layer of claggy mince meat trussed up in thick, unforgiving pastry – so now I always bake my own with a light frangipane topping and flaked almonds, or eat my mum’s encased in light pastry perfumed with orange. Use a mini cupcake tin to bake miniature morsels, ideal for snacking, until they are all gone.
Savour your Christmas baking, dear reader! It’s almost as enjoyable as the eating itself.
Buck’s Fizz Marmalade
Adapted from The Present Tree
Fills 3 small jars/1 large jar
600g oranges (approximately 6)
1kg caster or granulated sugar
Juice of 1 lemon
- First of all, sterilise the jars. Put the jars in a large pan and fill with cold water. Bring to the boil and simmer for 15 minutes. Carefully remove from the hot water and air dry.
- Zest two oranges and set aside. Quarter each orange, scoop out the flesh, removing as much white pith as possible from the fruit segments. Finely slice the peel of two oranges. Throw the flesh, excess juice and peel into a bowl with 200g sugar. With a gloved hand thorough mix and squeeze, loosening the fruit fibres. Pour this juicy mixture into a heavy-bottomed saucepan, along with the lemon juice and water.
- Bring the mix to the boil and skim off the white scum that floats on the top so you have a clear set jam. Let it bubble away gently for 30 minutes, stirring regularly, until the liquid has nearly all evaporated. The peel should be soft.
- Add the prosecco and simmer on low heat until it has reduced by half. Put a saucer in the fridge to chill.
- Add the remaining 800g sugar and take back up to a gentle boil. To test if it has set dollop a teaspoon of marmalade on the chilled saucer and put back in the fridge for 5 minutes to firm. Run your finger through the cold marmalade – if a clean line appears it is ready, if not bubble away for another 5 to 10 minutes and test again. A loose set marmalade is more desirable – cooked for too long it becomes orange toffee!
- Fill the sterilised jars with hot marmalade and seal tightly. Allow to cool.