In my family there are no extravagant gift-givers, and over the years we’ve reduced our decorations, shopping and overall craziness to some simple pleasures and a few thoughtful presents. We’d rather enjoy a dinner with good friends than go out for a big Christmas bash, and I’d rather be baking something wonderful in my kitchen for those I love than shopping for them in a mall any day. It’s just how things have happened.
But we do give presents, and each year I put together a box of homemade goodies, repurposed decorations, found treasures and locally purchased trinkets for a few of our friends who live far away and whom we miss very much. Creating the yearly Christmas Box is really my first step into the holiday season… wanna come along?
The exact contents of the box changes from year to year—no one wants to get the same stuff under the tree from one year to the next. But there are some “Toni’s Traditionals” that are pretty constant—
It’s easy to make, healthy and tasty, has a great shelf life and is sturdy enough (if wrapped well) to take the knocks of the USPS (I know they do their best, but this is an awfully busy time.). So a zipped freezer bag of my homemade granola always goes in the box, this year with hints of fresh-ground star anise, chocolate and cardamom.
The Christmas Cookie
I always include a cookie, but this can be tricky because two of my packages go all the way to Oregon and one will go to Texas this year. Durability is key—no crumbly shortbread or jelly-filled thumbprints. For 2015, I’ve chosen traditional biscotti, taken just a little to the extravagant side with dried cherries, toasted almonds and dark chocolate chips. According to The Nibble, biscotti was “originally made as a long-shelf-life food for travelers and carried by the Roman Legions.” So, you can see it’s perfect for the Christmas Box.
And it’s easy to make, especially if you have a trusted recipe. I follow one by my favorite Italian chef Jack Bishop. His recipes are inspirations from his grandmother’s kitchen—what more could you ask? Plus, his basic biscotti just begs for experimentation and your own special touch.
- One cup whole raw almonds with skins (For my Christmas biscotti, I reduced the almonds to a half cup and added a half cup semi-sweet chocolate chips and a quarter cup dried cherries, snipped extra small with my kitchen shears.)
- Two cups unbleached all-purpose flour (I used organic whole wheat pastry flour.)
- One cup sugar (I decided on coconut palm sugar, and it worked great.)
- Half teaspoon baking powder
- Pinch of salt
- Three large eggs
- Two large egg yolks
- One teaspoon vanilla (Depending on my ingredients, I’ve used a variety of extracts, including almond and peppermint. Be brave!)
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spread the almonds on a baking sheet in a single layer. Toast until fragrant, about eight minutes. Set aside to cool. Maintain the oven temperature.
- Grease and flour another large baking sheet (I used a good-quality cooking spray and did not need to flour the sheet.).
- Use a whisk to combine the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt in a large bowl.
- Beat two of the eggs, the egg yolks and the vanilla in a small bowl with a fork. Pour over the dry ingredients and use the fork to combine them. When the liquid ingredients have been incorporated, knead the dough with your hands until smooth.
- Coarsely chop the almonds into large pieces (I chopped mine a little finer for this recipe since I was also adding the chocolate chips and cherry bits.) and knead them into the dough. (I found this took faith—you don’t think it is going to happen, but everything will come together.)
- Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and divide it in half. With your hands, shape each half into a flat log about 12 inches long and three inches wide. Place the logs on the baking sheet, about four inches apart.
- Beat the remaining egg with a fork. Lightly brush the beaten egg over the two logs. Bake until the logs are firm to the touch and lightly browned on top, about 35 minutes.
- Remove from the oven and reduce the heat to 325 degrees. Wearing oven mitts, cut the logs on the diagonal into one-inch-wide slices.
- Lay the slices flat on the baking sheet and return them to the oven. Bake until crisp, about 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and cool on wire racks.
Store biscotti in an air-tight container in a cool, dry place for a week or more.
Something to Sip
You can’t have cookies without coffee or tea or something—a beverage of some kind is absolutely critical for biscotti dunking. Last year I included homemade chai tea mix, but this year I’m creating my own hot cocoa mix, packaging it in a repurposed jar with a tight lid and adding some festive decoration. Hot cocoa mix usually calls for some vanilla flavoring to balance the chocolate, so I’m going to make homemade vanilla sugar with a real vanilla bean to take ordinary cocoa to extraordinary. My inspiration is taken from The Epicurean—
For Vanilla Hot Chocolate Mix, you will need:
- Four cups granulated sugar (I used Wholesome brand organic cane sugar.)
- Half of a vanilla bean, split down the middle so you can scrape the seeds out
- One and a half pounds high-quality semisweet chocolate, coarsely chopped (Green & Black is a favorite brand for all chocolate used in my baking.)
- Eight ounces milk chocolate, coarsely chopped
- Two cups unsweetened cocoa powder (The Epicurean suggests Dutch processed, but I prefer Rapunzel Organic Cocoa.)
- Place the sugar in a large bowl. Split half the vanilla bean lengthwise, scape the seeds into the sugar, and add the pod. Work the seeds in with your fingers. Cover with an air-tight lid or plastic wrap and let stand overnight. Since I have other people on my gift list, including a couple of gourmet tea drinkers, I used the rest of the vanilla bean to flavor another two cups of sugar so that some of the fragrant vanilla sugar was in their gift box for an indulgent cup of tea. Vanilla sugar keeps for months if stored properly and can be a great ingredient in all kinds of dishes from cakes and cookies to your Christmas morning oatmeal.
- In a food processor fitted with a metal blade, process the semi-sweet chocolate and milk chocolate until finely ground. I did this step in two batches and it took about two minutes of pulsing to get the consistency I wanted.
- Remove the vanilla bean pod from the sugar and combine the sugar with your ground chocolates and the cocoa power using a large whisk until thoroughly combined.
- Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to six months. Who are they kidding? Gift-giving aside, I’d be amazed if this lasted six weeks in my house.
- To make one serving: heat eight ounces of milk over medium heat until scalded. I would think any kind of milk, including half and half—oh, my!–would work. I’m sure almond milk or coconut milk will work, too, if you are avoiding dairy. The key is milk that’s hot enough to adequately melt the cocoa mix. Whisk in a quarter to one-third cup cocoa mix. Serve with unsweetened whipped cream or organic marshmallows.
Homemade Citrus Salt
As in year’s past, my gift recipients will be receiving some citrus salt—which is a wonderful gift for the cooking enthusiast who loves to work with natural, fresh ingredients or the fledgling cook who needs some encouragement to try something new. So simple to make with only two ingredients and very little monitoring, it’s easy to give and a totally unexpected delight to receive. I will be making both lemon and orange this year, either of which would be a great addition to chicken or seafood dishes, as well as vegetables such as Brussel sprouts and green beans.
Citrus Salt (from Whole Living , December 2013)
- One cup flakey or coarse sea salt (I suggest the light grey Celtic Sea Salt.)
- Two tablespoons grated citrus peel: lemon, orange, grapefruit or lime (It is particularly important to use organic fruit for this recipe and to wash the fruit well before zesting. Conventionally grown citrus carries a heavy amount of pesticide in the skin that will not wash off.)
- Heat your oven to 200 degrees. In a medium bowl, mix the salt and zest. Spread the mixture on a parchment-lined baking sheet and bake until the citrus salt is dry, about one hour. Let cool completely before storing in glass jars with tight lids.
- This salt will keep for up to three months, so you can make it well ahead of the busy holiday crunch.
A Handmade Greeting Card
Well, I couldn’t create all these homemade treasures and then stick a store-bought card in the box and call it done, could I? My handmade cards started over 15 years ago when I worked for the publications department at a large university. Someone had ordered a large shipment of specialty paper only to find that it would not hold printer ink, leaving smeared type everywhere. The solution seemed to be to throw it out. It was beautiful paper—11 x 17 ivory textured vellum. How could I let it go?
Yep. I adopted it—all 10,000 sheets. Then I began to give it away to teachers, artists, daycares, anyone I knew who could use it. In the end, though, over 5,000 sheets remained in my very tiny home studio. And then I got a wonderful gift…
I went shopping for our yearly Christmas cards at a local mall. As I stood there looking at hundreds of boxes of identical batches of machine-made card designs, I kept thinking about that paper. Why would I buy more paper, cut down more trees, only to send a card identical to a million others flowing through the USPS? Not to mention the fact that I had kept an ever-growing, space-grabbing collection of received cards (Christmas, birthday, anniversary, etc.) in my limited space… for what? I treasured the cards, but what good were they stuffed in a closet?
I left the store, thinking all the way home: “You’re crazy. You won’t have time to make Christmas cards. You’re not an artist. People will laugh—or just not get it at all.” Against all these mental self-admonitions, I went ahead and created my first set of cards, using the unwanted paper and some of my old Christmas cards.
And you know what? I was wrong: people really liked those cards I came up with. So I’ve just kept doing them (Still have enough paper and repurposed cards to start my own greeting card company.). And now they come in two styles: Clouds and Cutouts, both of which could done by anyone, any age (Well wee ones might need a little help.). They are just the thing to keep bored children creatively engaged on a snowy December day and a wonderful way for you to say “Merry Christmas” in a way that is all your own and no one else’s.
For Clouds—think back to when you were small and you had time to watch the sky and find images, people and animals in the clouds—maybe you still do that. Well that’s the idea behind my cloud cards.
In the first step, I start by placing a sheet of sturdy acrylic on my craft table so clean up will be less of a headache. You just want something that washes up easily—maybe it’s just your kitchen table covered with newspaper. I place an 11 x 17 sheet of paper on the acrylic, and saturate the paper with clean water until it is literally limp. Then I use whatever watercolors are around (They do NOT need to be expensive!) and a variety of brushes to create patterns and color—however it happens, drips, runs and swirls–anything is just fine.
I let these painted papers dry on clean newspaper. Since they will curl at the edges when dry, I then place them between sheets of clean newspaper and weight them will heavy books for several hours or overnight.
The next step is to fold each sheet in half and glue it—any glue suitable for paper crafts will work, so check at your local craft or art supply store. Now the glued papers go back under the books for a couple of hours until they are very flat and set. They will start to feel like a lightweight cardstock.
Now I fold in half again. Which side becomes the front and back depends on which part of the pattern seems to present the best possibility to “imagine” something. Once I “see” my picture in the clouds, I use paint, oil pastels, colored pencils (or whatever you want—markers or crayons, etc.) to make the image appear. These are NOT works of art or very sophisticated. Sometimes, because I just let them become what they will instead of forcing them to be something, they can be down right “unusual.” Nothing wrong with that. They make people smile.
Cutouts are even more simple—got a butt-load of old cards stored in shoe boxes? Give them new life by cutting them apart and reattaching to folded pieces of cardstock. Since I’ve worked for several offices that frequently retired stationary or over ordered invitations, I have plenty of folded stock and envelopes–I just can’t help myself. I just cover the original lettering with new designs from old cards. Again—it’s a great rainy-day activity—and all you need is some folded cardstock, your old cards, some scissors and glue. No batteries or internet connection required.
And that’s about it for my Christmas Boxes this year. I will probably include a few other small items for each special person—some magic candles from Green Earth Grocery, homemade sachets and soaps from vendors at the local farmer’s winter market day, a scarf from Wild Creek Gardens and a Christmas ornament or two from Mississippi Mud Pottery. Nothing big or expensive, but all sent with love and care.
Now there’s one more thing: If I am such a “green gal,” how do I justify ingredients like a vanilla bean. They don’t grow in Illinois, after all. Well, I do my best to buy local whenever possible. But when I can’t, I look for organic, fair trade products from companies I respect. I often link to them in my posts to promote not only their great products but also their responsible missions and business practices. If you are wondering if buying organic really has an impact on your family’s health and the planet Earth, The Organic Center is a good place to start your research. It is not easy to understand the environmental challenges we face, nor always clear what decisions will be the right ones for us, nor whether we can justify more expensive purchases with our family funds just to buy organic. We can only do our best to care for each other and our planet. And that is ok.
So, what’s in your Christmas Box this year?