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Many people are turning to edible gifts this year

WEDNESDAY, DEC. 2, 2009

On a recent Saturday morning, every inch of countertop in Linda Meyer’s spacious kitchen was covered – with flour canisters, sticks of butter, molasses jars, baking sheets and the hands of seven women who attended Meyer’s “gifts from the kitchen” cooking class.

“I’ve set up stations here,” she told the group. “Let’s start by putting two of you on gingerbread.”

Side by side, the apron-clad participants made gingerbread loaves, lemon bars, peanut butter cookies, chocolate-covered toffee and other treats that they would later package and give away for Christmas.

With so many people living on tight budgets these days, more home cooks might whip up edible gifts this holiday season instead of giving store-bought items to friends and co-workers. Gifts from the kitchen can usually be made on a small budget, and even packaging them could be done economically – not to mention eco-consciously.

“You can get pretty little things at thrift stores,” Meyer said, holding up a secondhand Christmas-themed tin she planned to line with wax paper and fill with treats.

Kris McIlvenna, who owns Greenbriar Foods Inc. with her husband, Bob, and has taught “gifts from the kitchen” classes for 15 years, said she’s noticing a steady interest in edible holiday gifts this year, but for a different reason.

“The people who are attending these classes are no longer young mothers” trying to save money, McIlvenna said. “They’re nearing retirement, and they have the wherewithal to buy gifts … but they regard (homemade presents) as a social thing and a gift of themselves.”

She added, “They’ve been through childrearing and grandchild rearing and they know what they value: handmade things.”

Whatever the reason for giving edible gifts, McIlvenna and Meyer agree: make it delicious and present it in an attractive way, and it will be appreciated.

During the class at Greenbriar Inn, in Coeur d’Alene, students learned to make coffee-flavored liqueur with cream, double-chocolate biscotti, cocoa mix and chocolate-dipped peppermint sticks. They poured the liqueur into bottles and packaged everything together with Christmas mugs from a dollar store. All together, the ingredients for that gift would cost someone less than $9 to replicate, McIlvenna said.

They also made a dry bean soup mix, puff-pastry breadsticks, apricot-almond biscotti, a meat rub, a salad dressing and a coffee-cake mix.

McIlvenna showed the group how to make gift tags and decorate gift bags, an activity that brought out the kid in the participants, she said.

“I had them working with potato stamps,” McIlvenna said. “Every time I do this class it reminds me of how adults often fail to play – fun, innocent, creative play.”

Some of the most simple and inexpensive packaging ideas McIlvenna demonstrated, like attaching berries and leaves to a box of treats with a hot glue gun, drew the most “oh, wows” from the group, she said.

“Often it’s what’s on the outside that sells what’s on the inside,” she said.

In a different way, that goes for shipping, too. You don’t want to put the effort into making a batch of beautiful cookies only to have them crumble under the weight of other packages in the back of a Fed-Ex truck.

Meyer said if you wrap it right, almost any treat can be shipped to faraway friends and family. And if it can’t, adapt it.

“I’d never ship a pie, but I might ship little tarts,” she said.

She suggested packaging food in tins with several layers of wax paper as a cushion, and then taping the sides of the tin shut. Then, surround the tin with Styrofoam peanuts or bubble wrap in an outer box.

Meyer also advised considering the climate where you’re shipping the gifts. Chocolate-dipped anything could become a melty mess if it’s heading to a hot part of the world.

Meyer began teaching cooking and baking classes after moving to North Idaho from Rhode Island in 2007. Wanting to meet people in her new community, she formed a group called CDA What’s Cooking on the social networking site Meet Up.

The group has about 50 members who gather at least once a month at Meyer’s house to learn a new type of cuisine or baking technique. She doesn’t charge for her classes; she just asks each attendee to bring an ingredient or two.

As the “gifts from the kitchen” class continued in Meyer’s Rathdrum house that Saturday, the smells of molasses and peanut butter and a feeling of warmth took over.

Shannon Peckham drove from North Spokane to attend. Peckham, who says she cooks so infrequently her oven is spotless, said she plans to surprise her family with some home-baked treats this winter.

“Linda asked me to bring some confex—, confection—, some kind of sugar today, and I didn’t know what it was,” Peckham said, referring to confectioners’ (or powdered) sugar.

As items came out of the oven and off the stovetop, the women moved their treats to a table in the foyer where Meyer had set out examples of how to package the food with cellophane and bows. On the table were lemon bars, fudge and a gingerbread man that was about 18 inches tall.

Meyer said when she gives gifts from the kitchen, she tries to stick with traditional recipes, like those.

“People tell me it reminds them of being with their grandmother,” she said. “The old-time stuff, if you bring it back, people love it.”

Old-Fashioned Gingerbread Loaves

Courtesy of Linda Meyer, CDA What’s Cooking Meet Up group

1/2 cup shortening

2 tablespoons sugar

1 egg

1 cup dark molasses

1 cup boiling water

2 1/4 cups flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

1 tablespoon ground cinnamon

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Grease and flour a 9-inch baking pan (or 3 to 4 mini loaf pans).

Heat some water on the stove or in the microwave until it boils.

In a bowl, beat the shortening, sugar and egg with an electric mixer on medium speed for about 30 seconds. Blend in the molasses and the boiling water. In a separate bowl, sift together the flour, baking soda, salt, ginger and cinnamon.

Stir the dry ingredients into the creamed mixture, beating until thoroughly combined.

Pour the batter into the prepared baking pan or minipans. Bake for 45 to 50 minutes (or 18 to 23 minutes if you’re using minipans) or until a toothpick inserted near the center comes out clean.

Remove from oven. Cool on a wire rack for 10 minutes. Remove from pan and serve either at room temperature or warm, perhaps with a scoop of vanilla ice cream on top.

Yield: 1 (9-inch) loaf or 3 to 4 miniloaves

Lemon Bars

Courtesy of Linda Meyer, CDA What’s Cooking Meet Up group

For the crust:

2 cups flour

1 cup butter, melted

1/2 cup powdered sugar

For the filling:

4 eggs, well beaten

2 cups granulated sugar

1/3 cup lemon juice (about the juice of one lemon)

1/4 cup flour

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Mix all the crust ingredients in a bowl. Press crust into a greased 9-inch by 13-inch pan. Make sure the edges are higher than the center so the crust contains the filling.

Bake the crust for 20 minutes or until it begins to brown.

In a separate bowl, combine the eggs, sugar and lemon juice and mix well.

Stir in the flour and baking powder. Pour the lemon mixture into the baked crust, and then bake for 20 minutes, again at 350 degrees. The bars will be done when they are firm to touch.

Cut into 20 bars and dust with powdered sugar.

Yield: 20 bars

Easy Old-Fashioned Peanut Butter Cookies

Courtesy of Linda Meyer, CDA What’s Cooking Meet Up group

1 cup sugar

1 cup creamy peanut butter

1 egg

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Place all the ingredients in a bowl, and mix until well blended. Use a nonstick baking sheet. Roll the dough into 1-inch balls, place the balls on the baking sheet, and then flatten them with the tines of a fork in a cross-cross pattern.

Bake for about 10 minutes, removing them from the oven before they start to brown.

Yield: About 30 cookies

Turkey Noodle Soup Mix

Courtesy of Kris McIlvenna, Greenbriar Foods Inc.

1/2 cup dried lentils

2 tablespoons dried onion

11/2 tablespoons chicken-flavored bouillon

11/2 teaspoons dried dill

1/8 teaspoon celery powder

1/8 teaspoon garlic powder

1 bay leaf

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon pepper

11/4 cups uncooked egg noodles

Layer ingredients in the order above in a quart glass jar.

Attach a recipe card with the following directions:

To this mix, add 8 cups boiling water, one package frozen mixed vegetables, and 4 cups cooked turkey. Simmer for about 30 minutes on low heat.

Yield: About 10 cups soup

Herbed Bread Sticks

Courtesy of Kris McIlvenna, Greenbriar Foods Inc.

Puff pastry sheets

Seasoned salt

Parmesan or Romano cheese, grated

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and lightly oil a baking sheet.

Lay out the puff pastry sheets. Sprinkle seasoned salt and grated cheese on top.

Cut thin, long slices of the pastry dough, twist the slices and then place them on the prepared baking sheet.

Bake until light gold in color, about 10 or 15 minutes.

Make several different “looks” by using poppy seeds, sesame seeds, cumin, caraway and dill seeds.

Place the breadsticks in a couple of champagne glasses or some other useful and beautiful container.

Yield: About 20 breadsticks

Coffee Cake Mix

Courtesy of Kris McIlvenna, Greenbriar Foods Inc.

3 cups flour

2 cups sugar

1 tablespoon baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

1-2 teaspoons of an extract of your choice, such as lemon, almond or vanilla

Combine the ingredients above in a jar or other attractive container. Attach a note that reads:

To the coffee cake mix, add 1/2 cup orange juice, 1 cup vegetable oil and 4 eggs.

Grease a Bundt cake pan and pour half of the batter into the pan.

Then, place fruit of your choice, such as canned apricots, lemon filling, fresh berries or chopped apples, on top of first layer of batter.

Then pour the remaining batter on top, and bake at 350 degrees for one hour.

Irish Cream Liqueur

Courtesy of Kris McIlvenna, Greenbriar Foods Inc.

1 cup light cream

1 (14 ounce) can Eagle Brand sweetened condensed milk

12/3 cup Irish whiskey

1 teaspoon instant coffee

2 tablespoons Hershey’s chocolate syrup

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 teaspoon almond extract

Mix all ingredients in a blender on high speed for 30 seconds. Package in an attractive bottle.

Yield: About 5 cups

Mexican Coffee-Flavored Liqueur

Courtesy of Kris McIlvenna, Greenbriar Foods Inc.

2 cups water

11/2 cups sugar

11/2 cups instant coffee

2 cups 80-proof vodka

11/2 tablespoon vanilla extract

Combine the water, sugar and coffee in a covered saucepan over high heat.

Bring the mixture to a boil and continue to boil for 10 minutes.

Then remove from heat, let cool, and add the vodka and vanilla.

Stir and store in clear glass bottles.

Yield: About 5 cups

Apricot Hazelnut Biscotti

Courtesy of Kris McIlvenna, Greenbriar Foods Inc.

1/3 cup butter

2/3 cup sugar

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom or cinnamon

2 eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla

2 cups flour

3/4 cup toasted nuts

3/4 cup finely snipped dried apricots

In a mixing bowl, beat the butter with the sugar, baking powder and cardamom or cinnamon. Beat in the eggs and vanilla. Beat in as much flour as you can, and then stir in any remaining flour by hand, plus the nuts and apricots.

Cover and chill the dough for up to 2 hours for ease of handling.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Shape dough into a 12-inch log on baking sheet. Flatten log so that it’s about 1 1/2 inches high.

Bake for 25 minutes. Remove from the oven, then cool for one hour.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees again.

With serrated knife, cut the log into 1/2- to 3/4-inch slices.

Lay the slices down on a cookie sheet and bake for 8 minutes on each side.

Store in airtight container or freeze, then package with coffee beans, a coffee mug or other coffee-related gifts.

Yield: About 20 cookies

Megan Cooley is a Spokane-based freelance writer. She can be reached at megan.cooley@comcast.net.


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