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Sweets, treats made at home can make terrific gifts

There’s just something about a homemade food gift.

I love giving them because I often get stumped when it comes to finding a small, meaningful gift without spending too much money. And I’ll use any excuse to linger in the kitchen during the holidays.

Of course, everyone loves sweets and treats, but tailoring a gift for someone is really the key to making it a welcome surprise, says cookbook author Diane Morgan.

Morgan’s new book, “Gifts Cooks Love: Recipes for Giving” (Andrews McMeel Publishing, 192 pages, $25), is full of inspirations for everyone, from beginning bakers to accomplished cooks.

“Try to personalize the gift and make sure it is something they will enjoy,” she says.

If you know someone loves to grill, try a barbecue spice rub. If they love movies, choose a seasoning mixture for popcorn. If they love to bake, consider homemade vanilla.

“If you’re going on a ski weekend with friends … making the eight-hour braised onions that turn into French onion soup is a great gift. It’s fun to bring and you’re contributing a meal,” Morgan says.

Another way to approach gift giving from your kitchen is to create a signature gift that you give every year. “That way you can create that anticipation,” she says.

For Morgan, that gift is her Christmas pecans. She started making them more than 20 years ago, taking them to holiday parties and open houses.

Her list grew longer over the years until she was making more than 20 pounds of the pecans each December. She shared the recipe in a previous cookbook, “The Christmas Table” (Chronicle Books, 2008).

“It became this ritual that I enjoy,” she says.

Morgan’s new book also includes ideas for decorative packaging, recipe cards for each gift and tips for including other items to make it special.

Just because it comes from the kitchen doesn’t mean every gift has to have calories. There are plenty of do-it-yourself ideas that would be welcome, simple gifts.

Monique Kovalenko taught a class Saturday at the recently opened Sun People Dry Goods Company in Spokane, 32 W. Second Ave., Suite 200, that included several ideas for whipping everyday kitchen staples into gift-worthy creations.

Mix kosher or Epsom salt with a few drops of essential oil for a body scrub. Some people add olive or grapeseed oils to the mixture.

Or, swirl baking soda and cornstarch together in the proportions you like and add a few drops of essential oils to make a wonderful body powder, Kovalenko says. Essential oils can be found at health food stores and well-stocked supermarkets.

Another facial mask she loves is made from 1 cup ground rolled oats, 1 tablespoon sugar or salt, and 1/4 cup farina. Mix together and package in a mason jar with a label and ribbon, and include a tag with instructions for use: Moisten face, pat mixture onto face and then rinse off.

“They’re not very sexy but they are very simple,” Kovalenko says.

Friends say they’ve given everything from cinnamon rolls made from their grandmother’s recipe, to spiced jams and jellies, to simple candy and cookies. All that really matters is that it comes from the heart.

Here are a few recipes that would make nice gifts:

Apricot Bourbon Mustard

From “Gifts Cooks Love: Recipes for Giving,” by Diane Morgan (Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2010)

2/3 cup yellow mustard seeds

1 cup bourbon, such as Maker’s Mark

2/3 cup water

2/3 cup packed chopped dried apricots

4 tablespoons cider vinegar

4 tablespoons honey

1 tablespoon kosher or sea salt

Put the mustard seeds in a medium bowl and pour in 2/3 cup of the bourbon and the water. Soak the mustard seeds overnight or for up to 24 hours.

At least 1 hour before you plan to make the mustard, put the apricots in a bowl and pour in the remaining 1/3 cup bourbon. Macerate the apricots until most the bourbon is absorbed. (The apricots need to soak for a minimum of 1 hour, or you can start soaking them at the same time you prepare the mustard seeds.)

Before making the mustard, wash jars and lids in hot, soapy water and dry thoroughly. Alternatively, run the jars through the regular cycle of your dishwasher.

To make the mustard, first strain the mustard seeds, reserving the soaking liquid. Set aside the seeds.

In a food processor fitted with the metal blade, combine the apricots, any unabsorbed bourbon remaining in the bowl, cider vinegar, honey and salt. Puree until almost smooth.

Add the mustard seed soaking liquid and continue to puree until smooth. Add the mustard seeds and process until about half of the seeds are cracked and the others are incorporated but still whole.

Evenly divide the mustard among the prepared condiment jars, leaving 1/2 inch headspace.

Wipe the rims clean and secure the lids. Label and refrigerate for at least two weeks to allow the flavors to develop and mature.

Yield: About 2 2/3 cups, enough to fill four 6-ounce condiment jars

Gift card: “This Apricot-Bourbon Mustard was made on (date) and can be enjoyed for up to 3 months, kept in the refrigerator. In makes a delightful sandwich spread and a great dip for hard or soft-baked pretzels, or use it as a condiment for cured meats and smoked or grilled sausages.

Gift-giving tips: Tie each jar with raffia or ribbon and attach a gift card. To turn this into a gift basket, consider including a bag of twisted hard pretzels, or smoked sausages, cured meats, crackers and a jar of cornichons.

Herb Vinegar

From “The Perfect Basket,” by Diane Phillips.

1 cup chopped fresh herbs, such as rosemary, chervil, thyme, basil or oregano

4 or 5 whole peppercorns

1 large clove garlic, halved

1 quart white wine vinegar or distilled white vinegar

Place the herbs in a 2-quart glass bowl. Add the peppercorns and garlic. Pour the vinegar over the herbs. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and let stand in a cool, dry place for 1 week.

Strain the vinegar, pour into a glass bottle and label with a 3-month expiration date.

Yield: About 1 quart.

House Vinaigrette

Include this recipe on the gift card for the Herb Vinegar.

1/4 cup Herb Vinegar

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

1 teaspoon salt

1 clove garlic, crushed

2/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil

In a large glass bowl, whisk the Herb Vinegar and mustard together. Add the salt and garlic and whisk. Gradually add the oil and whisk until the mixture is smooth. Refrigerate for at least 3 hours before serving. The dressing will keep in the refrigerator for up to 4 days.

Yield: About 3/4 cup

North Pole Cookie Dough

From America’s Dairy Farmers’ “Better Baking with Butter” campaign. There are more ideas and baking tips at This dough can be baked, or given ready-to-bake in disposable pint-sized ice cream containers.

1 1/2 cups semi-sweet chocolate chips

1 2/3 cups flour

1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

1 1/4 teaspoons baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened

1/2 cup dark brown sugar, packed

1/2 cup sugar

1 1/4 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

2 large eggs

1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chunks

1 cup roasted almonds or toasted walnuts, roughly chopped

1 1/2 cups mini marshmallows

Place 1 1/2 cups chocolate chips in microwave-safe dish. Microwave 30 seconds on high, stir and continue to microwave in 10- to 20-second intervals, stirring after each, until chocolate is melted and smooth. Set bowl aside and cool to room temperature.

In medium bowl, whisk together flour, cocoa powder, baking soda and salt. In large bowl, beat butter and both sugars using electric mixer until light and fluffy. Add melted, cooled chocolate and vanilla, blending until fully incorporated. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add flour mixture slowly, mixing until incorporated. Fold in chocolate chunks, nuts and mini marshmallows.

Fill pint containers with cookie dough and refrigerate up to 4 days or freeze up to 1 month. When giving as a gift, attach following baking instructions:

“Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Drop dough by rounded tablespoons, or using small cookie scoop, onto parchment-lined baking sheets, about 1 inch apart. Flatten dough slightly using back of spoon. Bake 10 to 12 minutes, until edges are lightly cracked but centers are still soft. Remove from oven and cool slightly on baking sheet before transferring cookies to wire rack to cool completely.”

Yield: Three “pints” of dough or 2 dozen cookies

Coconut-Pecan Muffin Mix

From Real Simple magazine.

1½ cups all-purpose flour (spooned and leveled)

1 ½ teaspoons baking powder

½ cup granulated sugar

¼ cup light brown sugar

½ teaspoon kosher salt

1 (7-ounce) package sweetened shredded coconut (2 2/3 cups)

¾ cup pecans (chopped)

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, sugars and salt. Mix in the coconut and pecans. Keep at room temperature for up to 1 month.

Handwrite or download the following instructions on a gift tag or label to include with your gift: “Heat oven to 350 degrees. In a large bowl, whisk together 3 large eggs and ¾ cup canola oil. Add the muffin mix and stir just until combined. Divide among the cups of a 12-cup muffin tin lined with paper liners. Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center of a muffin comes out clean, 25 to 30 minutes. Makes 12 muffins.”

How to package your gift: Transfer the mix to a resealable paper bag (try the Tin-Tie Bag from, 12 for $6). Wrap with ribbon and affix with a label and a gift tag with the baking instructions.

Yield: 1 gift

From “Gifts Cooks Love,” by Diane Morgan. This is not the Christmas pecans recipe that Morgan is known for giving each Christmas, but a new variation that appears in her latest book.

1/2 cup unsalted butter

1 teaspoon ground chipotle chile powder

1 cup packed light brown sugar

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

2 large egg whites, at room temperature

3/4 teaspoon kosher or sea salt

1 pound large or jumbo pecan halves

Position a rack in the center of the oven. Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Have ready a large rimmed baking sheet, preferably nonstick for easier cleanup.

Melt the butter on the baking sheet in the oven. Be careful not to let the butter brown. Set aside.

Combine the chile powder and brown sugar in a small bowl. Pour the vanilla over the brown sugar. Set aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the egg whites on medium speed until foamy. Add 1/4 teaspoon of salt and beat on medium-high speed until soft peaks form. Add the sugar mixture 2 tablespoons at a time, beating on high speed to form a strong, shiny meringue. Remove the bowl from the mixer and use a rubber spatula to gently fold in the nuts until they are well coated.

Gently tip the rimmed baking sheet so the butter coats the bottom of the pan. Using the rubber spatula, spread the nuts over the butter, without stirring, to form an even layer without deflating the meringue.

Bake the nuts for 20 minutes. Remove them from the oven and stir with a spatula, moving the nuts at the center of the pan to the edges and the nuts at the edges closer to the center. Return the pan to the oven, bake nuts for 15 minutes longer, and stir them again. Sprinkle the nuts with the remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt.

Continue baking, stirring every 15 minutes, until the nuts are separated, have absorbed the butter and glisten, and are beautifully browned, 45 minutes to 1 hour longer.

Immediately turn the nuts out onto the counter lined with a long sheet of aluminum foil; spread them out and let cool completely.

Store in a tightly covered tin or covered glass container. The nuts will keep for up to 3 weeks.

Recipe card: “Chipotle Chile Candied Pecan, Dried Cranberry and Crumbled Blue Cheese Salad: Combine a handful of these candied pecans, along with 1/4 cup of sweetened dried cranberries and 1/2 cup crumbled blue cheese, with 8 cups loosely packed mesclun greens. Toss with your favorite vinaigrette and serve. Add thin slices of crisp apples or ripe pears, if desired.”

Gift-giving tips: Wrap the nuts in small tins or laminated gift boxes lined with decorative waxed paper. To turn this into a gift basket, consider including a bottle of bourbon or scotch. Alternatively, pack a gift basket or salad bowl with the nuts, sweetened dried cranberries, crumbed blue cheese and a recipe card for the salad above.

Chocolate Covered Peanut Butter Balls

From “The Farm Chicks Christmas” by Serena Thompson. She writes, “I’m always happy when Teri calls to tell me she’s received her holiday box of these sweet treats from her mother-in-law, Sandy. I think you’ll agree I’m lucky to have a friend who shares both the cookies and the recipe.”

2 cups chunky peanut butter

1 cup unsalted butter (2 sticks), softened

4 cups confectioners’ sugar

3 cups crisp rice cereal

2 cups dark chocolate chips (12 ounces)

2 tablespoons vegetable shortening

1/3 cup white chocolate chips (3 ounces)

Make the balls: Line 2 baking sheets with waxed paper and set aside. Cream the peanut butter and butter together in a large bowl with an electric mixer set on medium speed until fluffy, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the confectioners’ sugar with the mixer on low speed, beating until combined.

Stir in the rice cereal with a wooden spoon until fully incorporated. Roll the dough by the tablespoonful between your palms into balls about 1 inch in diameter. Place on the prepared baking sheets.

Dip the balls: Place the dark chocolate chips and shortening in a small microwave-safe bowl and microwave on high for 30 seconds; remove and stir. If not completely melted, repeat the microwaving.

Using a fork, dip each peanut butter ball into the chocolate, coating well and letting the excess drip off. Transfer the balls as they are coated to the prepared baking sheets. Allow to cool until set. To speed up the setting time, you can refrigerate the sheets until the chocolate is hard.

Garnish the balls: Place the white chocolate chips in a small microwave-safe bowl and microwave on medium for 30 seconds; remove and stir. If not completely melted, repeat the microwaving.

Pour the melted chocolate into a plastic sandwich bag. Snip off the tip of one corner of the bag with scissors. Drizzle the white chocolate over each peanut butter ball. Let set until firm. Store in an airtight container.

Yield: 60 (1-inch) balls

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