The gift of great food

Margaret Maples

Giving tasty homemade gifts is one of the holiday season’s joys, especially if the gifts serve as pats on the back for the people who make your life better every day. Mail carriers, handymen, your mechanic — you know your crew. Maybe you tip these workers each year, but this time, try adding a bit of yourself by including a big cookie.

You can make these treats from scratch, but why not speed up the process — and still fill your home with that lovely cookie fragrance — by using store-bought dough? Even your smallest helper will be able to shape dough balls and place them on baking sheets.

Let the cookies cool completely before decorating. We’ve supplied a recipe for icing, but the ready-made variety is also available in the supermarket baking aisle. A craft or cooking store is likely to offer a variety of paste food colors, plus pastry bags and tips for piping designs and messages.

Decide which colors you’ll need and, for each one, tint about three-quarters of a cup of icing. If you’re experienced with pastry bags, prepare one for each color. Freezer bags are less precise tools, but they do offer another decorating option: Fill a freezer bag with colored icing and cut off a tiny corner. This little hole serves as your tip. Reserve plenty of white icing wrapped in plastic in case you need to mix more colors.

Sketch a light-hearted design for each trade or job: a chocolate hammer for your handyman, a brilliant yellow light bulb for your electrician. Before you begin decorating in earnest, practice piping each design on a baking sheet or wax paper. 

Once the cookies are decorated, let the icing set. Then place each cookie in a food-safe bag so it will stay fresh. The final step is to place the bagged cookie in a box or tin with a bright bow. The ones you keep at home can be stored in airtight containers.

Holiday Trail Mix

• 1 cup pecan halves

• 1 cup walnut pieces

• 1 egg white, beaten

• 6 tablespoons granulated sugar

• ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon

• ½ teaspoon ground nutmeg

• ½ cup peanuts, shelled, roasted, salted

• ½ cup banana chips

• ½ cup dried cranberries

• ½ cup golden raisins

If you prefer a savory version, omit the egg white, sugar and spices, and instead roast the pecans and walnuts with 2 tablespoons of soy sauce and a tablespoon of Worcestershire sauce.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.  Line a baking pan with foil; set aside.

Stir the pecan halves and walnut pieces into the egg white. Use a slotted spoon to lift out the nuts; spread them in a single layer on the foil-lined pan.

Combine the sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg. Sprinkle this over the nuts, turning to coat them.

Roast the coated nuts for 8 to 10 minutes, stirring with a wooden spoon about midway through. Remove the nuts; allow to cool.

Combine the walnuts and pecans with  peanuts, banana chips, cranberries and raisins. Stir.

Makes about four cups.

Cranberry Pumpkin Bread

These loaves combine our favorite holiday flavors, and they ship very well.

• 1 can (15 ounces) pumpkin puree

• 4 eggs

• 1 cup vegetable oil

• ²/³ cup water

• 3 cups granulated sugar

• 3 ½ cups all purpose flour

• 2 teaspoons baking soda

• 1 ½ teaspoons salt

• 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

• ½ teaspoon ground nutmeg

• ½ teaspoon ground cloves

• ¼ teaspoon ground ginger

• 1 can (14 ounces) whole berry cranberry sauce

• Confectioners’ sugar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease seven small loaf pans (approximately 3 X 6 inches) and line each one with a rectangle of parchment, letting the ends hang over the long sides of each pan.

In a large mixing bowl, using the paddle attachment, combine pumpkin puree, eggs, oil, water and sugar. In a separate bowl, stir together flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and ginger. Stir the dry ingredients into the pumpkin mixture. Do not overmix.

Place about ¾ cup of batter in each pan. On top of this layer, gently spoon about 3/8 cup of cranberry sauce. Don’t spread the cranberry sauce all the way to the edge.

Divide the remaining pumpkin batter and use it to top the cranberry layer in each pan.

Bake for about 50 minutes. After the first half-hour, lay a rectangle of foil gently over the loaf pans to keep the bread from becoming too brown.

Check for doneness by inserting a thin wooden skewer into the center of a loaf. If it comes out clean, the loaf is done.

Allow to cool. Dust each loaf with confectioners’ sugar.

Makes seven loaves (about 6 x 3 inches)

— Adapted from online sources


For friends in other cities, plan goodies that will arrive looking lovely. Without special handling, which is costly, a trip across town can reduce iced cakes or cupcakes to buttercream rubble. So pick treats that can go the distance, and wrap them securely.

One candidate is Cranberry Pumpkin Bread, which presents a richly hued texture with a streak of whole berry cranberry sauce through the loaf. Package the loaves in treat bags and place them in a pretty cake tin, and send them off in a cardboard box.

As a change of pace, consider Holiday Trail Mix. Our recipe features banana chips, dried cranberries, raisins, peanuts, and sugar-coated walnuts and pecans. Pack the trail mix in a treat bag and in a neat tin, enclosed in a cardboard box. The trail mix doesn’t require the protection of a tin, but the metal container provides effective storage and a casual serving container for the holidays.

And after all your preparations, remember to ship early. The holiday rush is one tradition to avoid.