Thursday, November 12, 2009

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Not Your Mother’s Fruitcake
Local cooks share their holiday gift-giving secrets

When you are invited to a holiday party, you probably know better than to show up with a fruitcake for the hosts, even if you did make it yourself. Your challenge is to find a gift that balances originality and thoughtfulness with your time constraints during this hectic time of year. Sure, you could run to the store for a jar of jam or a bottle of wine. Yet you could just as easily raid your own pantry, closets, and even the plants in your back yard.

Homemade gifts need not be elaborate to be appreciated. Christine Vasko each year bakes several batches of cookies with her friend and fellow Wellesley resident Mary Sullivan. “People are so thrilled to have homemade cookies, you’d think we were giving them a thousand dollars,” says Vasko.

Susu Aylward, proprietor of Susu Bakery Boutique in Wellesley, is a big believer in starting with basic recipes and then “taking them umpteen places.” If you make simple sugar cookies, you can package them with royal icing and sprinkles or colored sugar so the host can decorate them another time. Or go back to your tried-and-true childhood recipes.

“Who doesn’t like a chocolate chip cookie? We sell millions of them at the bakery,” says Aylward. Pack a dozen or two in a cellophane bag, tie it up with a colorful ribbon, and you can bring this gift almost anywhere you are invited. For a cookie alternative, granola is easy to make and keeps well (see below for a recipe).

Vasko and Sullivan use tins for packing their cookies, adding a personal note to each label. The friends started baking together in 2005. The holidays that year were difficult for Vasko, whose husband had recently passed away. “I wanted to do something to give back to those who gave so much to me during that time,” she says. Last year, they baked about 1,300 cookies for family and friends. From year to year, they vary the selection, making sure to keep a few favorites in the assortment of 10 to 12 different types. Their decorated sugar cookies are always a hit. So are gingerbread cookies with butterscotch chips, and chocolate-covered peanut butter balls. (See below for a kringle recipe).

Baking and packaging the cookies has evolved into a two-day project at Sullivan’s home during the first weekend of December. Both women enlist at least some of their children (each has three) to help with decorating and packing the tins with a selection of 24 to 30 cookies in a tin.

Vasko says the response makes the hard work worthwhile. “A small gift goes a long way. It brings us so much joy to hear the comments from people.” Many look forward to receiving the cookies all year.

Elliot Feldman of Weston also has friends and neighbors who look forward each year to his edible gift. Feldman created his now-legendary recipe for caramel-chocolate dipped apples more than 20 years ago when he couldn’t find what he wanted at a farm stand. Now he makes several dozen of the apples each December. He special-orders oversize apples, then dips each one in caramel, rolls it in nuts (the selection varies each year), and lets the caramel harden. He then immerses each apple in melted milk chocolate, dips the bottom in white chocolate, and drizzles the outside with dark chocolate. He wraps each apple in cellophane, and his wife ties on the ribbons. When he was making just a dozen of the apples, Feldman and his two sons made deliveries on Christmas morning. Now he has so many people on his list that he drops off the apples for several days, and even sends a few out by Fed Ex.

“It’s a standing joke around town. People will come up to me at a party and ask how they can get on my list. I tell them the list is oversubscribed,” he says, laughing. “Once someone gets on my list, they never get off.”

Not every gift needs to be sweet. Carolyn Wetmore of Weston likes to pair homemade red and green items—pesto and tomato chutney, or tomato-cognac soup and zucchini-curry soup. “The beauty of these soups as a gift is that they can be kept in the refrigerator for many days or frozen for weeks,” she says. For serving, they can be poured simultaneously into a bowl, so that half of the contents is red and half is green. The same half-and-half technique can be applied to the pesto and chutney.

“It takes a little practice to pour them into the bowl at the same rate and get a perfect line where the soups meet, but if you do it right, it really looks spectacular,” she says.

For packaging, Wetmore recycles glass jam or pasta sauce jars. A 12-ounce jelly jar works well for the pesto or chutney; a 32-ounce pasta jar for the soups (but let anything hot cool before filling the jar). Cover the lid with a square of wrapping paper or festive fabric, and tie a ribbon around it. A decorative label listing key ingredients provides the finishing touch.

Aylward encourages you to look around your house and your yard for creative ways to present gifts. The storage room at Susu Bakery Boutique is filled with baskets, cellophane bags, decorative jars, and gift bags. With the judicious use of tissue paper and ribbons, she can pull together a nice-looking gift in a matter of minutes. For an accent, she suggests tucking a sprig of holly or evergreen under the ribbon you use around the lid of a basket or a bag. Some of these plants might be growing in your yard. The ribbon also makes a nice place to tuck a small serving knife, a cinnamon stick, a tea ball, or another useful kitchen item. Baskets containing a few homemade cookies can be filled up with tea, cocktail napkins, nuts, chocolate bars, or cocoa mix.

“A lot of people worry that they aren’t creative, but you should get out of your own way and have fun,” she says.

Pleasers from the Pantry
Your pantry might be your best source for a last-minute gift. Here are a few things that you can probably pull together with ingredients that you have on hand. Consult a basic cookbook or a reliable site on the internet for exact directions.
• Spiced nuts: A variety of nuts can be tossed in melted butter and spices, such cinnamon, cumin, or chili powder.
• Sugar cookies: Most recipes call for little more than sugar, butter, flour, and vanilla.
• Tea breads: Basic recipes call for the same ingredients as sugar cookies, plus eggs, milk, and baking powder. Add flavor from the juice and zest of a lemon or an orange. Bake in small loaf pans.
• Hot cocoa mix: Ingredients usually include cocoa powder, sugar, and powdered milk, with a sprinkle of cinnamon or instant coffee powder if you want to get fancy.
• Cereal bars: Marshmallows, butter, and puffed rice cereal go together quickly. Use cookie cutters to create different shapes.
• Chocolate-dipped items: In a double boiler, melt a good-quality chocolate bar or chocolate chips with a little bit of vegetable oil or butter, then dip in candy canes, pretzels, crystallized ginger, or anything else that seems like it would taste good. For extra flavor, crush up a candy cane and stir it into the chocolate before dipping. Spread dipped items on waxed or parchment paper until cool.

Carolyn Wetmore’s Sweet Tomato Chutney
1 whole head of garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
2 inch piece of fresh ginger, roughly chopped
11⁄2 cups red wine vinegar
1 can (1 pound, 12 ounce) whole tomatoes
11⁄2 cups granulated sugar
1⁄2 tsp. cayenne pepper
2 tbsp. golden raisins
2 tbsp. pine nuts

Vasko Family’s German Kringle
Christine Vasko’s family has been baking this recipe since the 1920s. The dough is dense, so a small cookie can be quite satisfying. If you have time to roll out pretzels, these look pretty, but cookies made with a cutter taste just as good.

• Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Over a mixing bowl, sift together the flour and baking powder. Set aside.

• In the bowl of an electric mixer, cream the sugar and butter. Beat in the egg yolks and vanilla, pausing to scrape down the sides of the bowl, until incorporated. With the mixer on the lowest speed, add the sifted flour mixture, a little at a time, until combined.

• Using your hands, form the dough into a ball. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours. (At this point, the dough can be refrigerated for up to 24 hours).

• When ready to bake, remove the dough from the refrigerator and let it sit for five to ten minutes to soften slightly. On a lightly floured work surface, use the heel of your hand to flatten the dough and then roll with rolling pin to make a smooth surface. Roll out to 1⁄3 to 1⁄2 inch thickness. Use a 1 or 1 1⁄2 inch cookie cutter, preferably with fluted edges, to cut out individual cookies. Place the cookies on an ungreased baking sheet.

To make pretzels (instead of cut cookies), pinch off about 2 tablespoons of dough at a time. Roll each piece into a long, skinny log about 1⁄2 inch in diameter, then shape into a pretzel.

• For cookies in either shape, lightly brush the tops with egg white. Sprinkle with chopped almonds and granulated sugar.

• Bake until the bottom of each cookie is slightly brown, about 9 to 10 minutes.

Makes about 56 cookies

Paul’s Granola from Susu Bakery Boutique
Susu Aylward, proprietor of Susu Bakery Boutique in Wellesley, created this recipe with her father, Paul Aylward. “I pulled him out of retirement [from construction] and taught him how to bake. He became one of my best bakers,” she says. He lost his battle to cancer last year. A portion of sales from the granola benefits cancer research.

**NOTE: Customize your blend of granola by substituting 1⁄2 cup of walnuts, pecans, or other nuts of your choice for the sliced almonds. Substitute dried cranberries or other dried fruits for the raisins. Toasted coconut can also be mixed in at the end.



© 2009 Elm Bank Media