Here’s my Times Union story for December. Read it on their website, or see below. This story goes along with the recipes for Cranberry + Pistachio Bread, Creole Spiced Snack Mix and Boozy Chocolate Coffee. As always, thanks for reading. And Merry Christmas!
It has always sounded so good to me. To me, really, and no one else in my house, but this year, we’re doing it: no presents.
I think I tried it in the past. I proposed to my family that we do something other than give each other gifts at Christmas. This was always met with squinty-eyed stares and wrinkled noses. My children, full-blooded Americans to the core, wanted the traditional holiday, the anticipation, the wrapped packages, the excitement. I remember feeling that way, too. And I didn’t blame them. This year, though, something changed. They agreed, all three—readily, heartily agreed—to forego gifts in favor of something else. Ah, finally, we have arrived.
But what then? What would take the place of a time-honored tradition of lovingly choosing a gift to give and then ripping it open, with anticipation and glee? The only thing I could think of is time spent together doing something fun.
Freed of the relentless search for perfect gifts, of trudging through the mall and searching online, I am able to spend time making gifts for friends and family and neighbors. Gifts that I don’t have to give, but want to give. I want to give the people I love sweet things, boozy things, crunchy, buttery and salty things. The kinds of things we don’t typically eat at any other time of the year. And since I’m being truthful, I wanted to make things that came from stuff I (mostly) have in my cupboards. I didn’t want to trade trudging through the mall for trudging through a bunch of grocery stores. Hopefully, most of what’s here is within reach.
A note here, before I go on about what I made. I want to tip my hat to cookies, and more importantly, cookie makers. There is a special place in our holiday-loving hearts for cookies and for the awesome people who bake them and bring them to our door. Cookies are, quite possibly, the best of the best of holiday food gifts. These recipes are decidedly not cookies. There are three offerings here that are a little change up from the traditional holiday cookie. Since it’s kind of late, these might be considered last-minute gifts. And hey, they work as New Year’s presents, too.
The first holiday gift is made up of ingredients that are, at their core, Christmas-y. These things all go into a drink that’s meant to be enjoyed on Christmas morning. A boozy coffee drink is a Christmas morning thing, did you know that? Here, you can make it easy for your friends and family to be part of the Christmas morning boozy coffee mania by giving them a complete, ready-to-drink, boozy coffee. The little bottles I made pack a cheerful punch, with plenty of sugar, chocolate, strong coffee and bourbon. You can easily make variations on this recipe, and substitute non-dairy milk, decaf coffee and whatever booze you like (or have on hand.) Coffee or hazelnut liqueur, rum or Irish cream would all be very good. With a boozy coffee drink, Christmas morning might go from waking, to unwrapping, to snoozing on the couch. New Year’s Day could be similarly quiet after having a little nip in coffee. Sounds kinda nice, right?
My family loves Chex Mix, even the inferior kind that comes in a bag. If you’ve ever had the homemade variety, you’ll understand what the big deal is. It’s the kind of thing that you eat and eat and look down and somehow, the bowl is empty even though you don’t remember finishing it. And still, you want more. It’s the salt, yes, but also the way the butter soaks into the little pieces of cereal, and then the spices and salt that cling to the butter. It’s texture, and flavor. Once the decision was made to make a batch to give (and to eat), I thought about changing it up a bit. Why not add a little flavor and spice? With my son Elliot, who at 17 is an authority on junk and snack foods, acting as taste-tester, I tried a few varieties. There were two Indian-spiced varieties, one with garam masala and another with a spicy curry. Good, but not great. I made a Chinese five-spice version, with cinnamon, fennel and clove. Interesting, but still not quite right. We carried on. Finally, I mixed up a few simple spices for a Cajun-style flavor and we had something close. With the addition of a few herbs, setting it more in a Creole-flavor space, we had a winner. Made with common ingredients from the spice rack, the spiced mix has some warm heat, notes of herb, and plenty of garlicky-buttery-saltiness. It’s the kind of thing that makes the bowl surreptitiously disappear. Feel free to mix up what you add in, as long as the recipe amounts are equal. I love the sweet honey-roasted peanuts with salt and spice, but you could use plain peanuts. Pita and bagel chips, or cheese crackers all work well.
Lastly, I made a few sweet, pretty loaves of bread. Pistachios are such an indulgence – I picked up a few bags of shelled pistachios on sale in the drugstore – making them a perfect ingredient in a holiday bread. Make the batter by pulsing together the nuts, berries (use fresh or frozen, not dried) and orange sections in the food processor, then stir that into the rest of the ingredients. The cranberries add a nice tartness—but don’t worry, there’s plenty of sugar to balance it out— and look so festive nestled into the crumb. I saved a few to press into the tops of the bread as well. This bread is good sliced and thickly slathered with salted butter, something you might do without reservation on a holiday morning. Use this recipe to make one large loaf, or a few smaller loaves to wrap in paper and give them to a few neighbors or friends. The size of the pan doesn’t matter, as long as you follow the rule of filling it no more than two-thirds full.
So what will we do, in lieu of gifts at our house? There might have been dreams of something truly spectacular, like a warm beach. That wasn’t in the cards, or the budget. Instead, we’re going to the Adirondacks for a couple of days, to cozy up together. We’ll ski and eat, play games and just be together, away from work and everyday life. It might be more of a gift to me than anyone else. I am wishing each and every person reading this the same quiet holiday filled with things more important than gifts: the food, the quiet moments, and people to share it all with.