with Donna Sweeny

Christmas Gifts from Your Kitchen

Steamed pudding, popcorn and cranberry garlands, egg-nog, stuffed goose, fruit cake, roasted chestnuts, mincemeat pie — so many holiday tradi­tions are associated with food and one of the warmest tradi­tions of all is sharing the boun­ty of your kitchen. Loving and caring arc what Christmas is all about, and what better way to express your feelings than with a present you have made yourself?

In an interview some years ago, Sophia Loren said that when someone special comes to dinner at her home, she is always sure to prepare one dish herself. This gives her the op­portunity to tell her guest, “I made this just for you.” How touching…how charming…

Cookies and cakes come im­mediately to mind as holiday food gifts, but relishes, chutneys, sauces, mustards, flavor­ed vinegars, cocktail snacks and pates are also good choices. You need not start weeks ahead of time, either; all the recipes that follow have short preparation times and would make excellent hostess gifts. Presentation counts — wrapped in cellophane or foil, and tied with a pretty tartan ribbon, these gifts can stand on their own.

But if you want to make them  really special, consider using baskets, decorative jars, individual souffle dishes or brandy snifters to pack your gifts. Earthenware crocks are perfect for giving mustards, relishes or pates; covered por­celain or lacquerware soup bowls are ideal for cocktail nibbles and nuts. Flavored vinegar in a cutglass decanter is both beautiful and elegant.

If the holiday social whirl has left you no time at all for cooking, you can still give a gift from your kitchen. Bour­bon hard sauce is a favorite accompaniment to puddings, fruit cake or ice cream and takes less than two minutes to prepare. In a food processor fitted with the steel blade, combine 4 tablespoons butter, 1 egg, 3 cups confectioners’ sugar and 2 tablespoons of bourbon. Process until smooth; chill thoroughly. It’s delicious.

Jan Bertoglio and JoLe Hud­son, authors of A Cooking Affaire (Butcher Block Press, Medicine Lodge, Kansas) sug­gest that holiday cooks give themselves a treat and keep a “Christmas scent” on the stove. Pour one quart of water into a saucepan and add 1 tablespoon whole cloves, 5 sticks cinnamon, 1 tablespoon nutmeg and some allspice. Bring this to a boil and let it stay on low heat. I tried this and found that the whole house was filled with the fragrance of  Christmas  —   wonderful!

Wishing you a fragrant, deli­cious, and very merry Christ­mas!

The Vinegar Institute offers these two recipes for flavored vinegar; the addition of fruit imparts a distinctive and aro­matic flavor.

Strawberry Vinegar (makes 1 1/2 quarts)

  • 2 pints fresh strawberries
  • 1 quart cider vinegar
  • 1 cup sugar
  • Remove stems from straw­berries, halve strawberries and set 1/4 cup aside.
  • In a large bowl, place re­maining strawberries. Pour vinegar over the strawberries. Cover and set aside for 1 hour. Transfer vinegar and strawberries to a large sauce pot.
  • Add sugar; bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, covered, for 10 minutes. Strain out strawberry mix­ture, pressing out as much liquid as possible. Pour vinegar into a 1 1/2 quart jar. Add reserved straw­berries. Cover tightly.

Orange Vinegar (makes 1 quart)

  • 1 quart white vinegar
  • 1 cup sugar
  • Orange peel from 1 medi­um orange (orange por­tion only)
  • In a large sauce pot, place vinegar, sugar and orange peel; bring to a boil.
  • Reduce heat and simmer, covered, for 20 minutes. Transfer vinegar and orange peel to a 1 quart jar. Cover tightly.

Spiced Walnuts (makes 1 1/2 cups)

  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1 egg white
  • 1 teaspoon grated orange peel
  • 1 1/2 cups shelled walnuts
  • Preheat oven to 300°.
  • In a small bowl, mix sugar and ginger together and set aside.
  • In a large bowl, whisk egg white and orange peel together. Add walnuts and mix thoroughly to coat.
  • Put the walnuts in a sin­gle layer in a shallow baking pan. Sprinkle sugar/ginger mixture on top. Bake for 15 minutes, or until crisp, stirring occasionally.

Curried Pecans (makes 4 cups)

  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 4 cups shelled pecans
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons curry powder
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1/2 teaspoon sugar
  • In a skillet, melt butter and add pecans and saute, stirring constantly, for 4 minutes.
  • Add remaining ingredients to the skillet and saute for another 2 minutes. Cool the pecans on a wire rack.

Cheddar Kisses (makes about 3 dozen)

  • 1 cup butter, softened
  • 2 cups grated sharp Cheddar
  • 2 cups sifted flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup Rice Krispies
  • Dash of Worcestershire Sauce and Tabasco Sauce
  • 1/4 teaspoon Cayenne pepper
  • Cream butter and cheese together. Add remaining ingredients and mix until thoroughly combined. Re­frigerate for one hour.
  • Preheat oven to 350°.
  • Roll the cheese dough into walnut-sized balls, place on a cookie sheet and bake for 15 minutes. Re­move the cheddar kisses to a wire rack and let cool.

Coconut Apricots (makes 4 dozen)

  • 1 tablespoon vegetable shortening
  • 6 ounces semi-sweet choco­late morsels
  • 48 large, dried apricots
  • 1/2 cup finely grated coconut
  • In the top of a double boiler, over simmering water, stir the shortening and chocolate until melt­ed. Remove from heat.
  • Dip each apricot in the chocolate so that it is coated halfway. Place the coated apricots on a tray or flat dish covered with wax paper. When all the apricots have been dipped, dust them liberally with grated coconut. Refriger­ate for about 10 minutes until the chocolate is set.