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Homemade for the holidays

My grandmother never tired of telling us about her first Christmas as a married woman during the Great Depression. There was no money for gifts or a fancy holiday feast, but my grandfather lovingly made her a cup of hot cocoa that morning — the best cocoa she ever tasted — from a splash of hoarded milk and a melted chocolate candy he'd bought for a penny. It was a breakfast she never forgot, and no lavish present ever moved her more.

As we face the holiday season with worries about stretched budgets and shrinking retirement accounts, gifts from the hearth seem more compelling than ever. We've put together a varied collection of recipes aimed at pleasing everyone on your list. None requires particular culinary skill or pricey ingredients, and all will say you care in a very special way.

Marshmallows

I love marshmallows, and was struck by how much better handcrafted ones taste when I received them as a gift. Later I was stunned to spot a package of 15 for $16.50 at a kitchen shop.

It turns out they're quite easy to make, and the ingredients — sugar, corn syrup, unflavored gelatin and flavoring — are inexpensive. I read recipes by Maida Heatter, Martha Stewart and many others and came up with my own adaptation. (Though some recipes use egg whites, I stuck with the simplest formula.)

A batch of marshmallows yielding 100 one-inch squares costs about $4.50 and produces six fine gifts of 15, plus extras for snacking. (The most expensive ingredient is the gelatin at $2. You also must have a candy thermometer.)

The easiest way to make a variety of flavors is to dust the marshmallows with colored sugar or finely grated chocolate (mixed with coffee powder for a mocha twist) instead of powdered sugar. Make sure each marshmallow is completely coated so there are no sticky spots.

You can package them simply in an airtight bag or wrap individually in wax paper. (Colored plastic wrap looks pretty, but I've had trouble getting it to stick well because of the powdered sugar dusting.) You could even pair homemade marshmallows with homemade hot cocoa mix for a thoughtful gift.

Toffee, brittle

The toffee and brittle recipes here are amazingly quick and easy — no candy thermometer or crouching over a stove trying to figure out when the ingredients have reached the soft ball stage.

I've seen an eight-ounce tin of toffee priced at $10 or more in gourmet shops. You can make two gifts that size for a total of $5 to $8, depending on the type of nuts and chocolate. The rich, buttery taste and texture are what's most important, so walnuts and grocery-store quality chocolate will do. I do not, however, recommend substituting margarine for butter.

I spotted an eight-ounce tin of pistachio brittle in a gift catalog for $14. Starting with shelled pistachios, I was able to produce two gifts of more than eight ounces each for less than $6. Substituting peanuts for the pistachios cuts the price in half.

Cranberry vodka

A delicious and pricey cranberry martini at a restaurant inspired me to make my own version, but with a twist, replicating the flavor profile of my favorite cranberry-orange relish. It turned out wonderfully. The vodka takes on the flavors with gusto, and turns a holiday-perfect red.

A 750-milliliter bottle of brand-name cranberry vodka sells for $22 to $30. I used an inexpensive bottle of vodka and produced three pint-size gifts for $15.

The flavored vodka is wonderful chilled and served as a martini or cosmopolitan or with club soda or tonic.

Candied nuts

Candied walnuts are irresistible for snacking, wonderful on a salad and perfect for garnishing a holiday cheese or fruit platter. At a gourmet store, a 3.5-ounce package costs about $6. You can make four 4-ounce gifts for the same amount, and they taste even better. Toss the prepared walnuts with dried cranberries or cherries and you'll double the yield.

The recipe is one I adapted from a 2000 Bon Appetit magazine that called for corn syrup and white sugar. I think this version has more pizzazz, with a nice balance of sweet and salty.

Pomegranate pepper jelly

A 10-ounce jar of supermarket-brand hot pepper jelly sells for $5. Our pomegranate version costs only about 50 cents less, but you won't find anything as lovely on the grocery-store shelf.

The juice has a gorgeous claret color and a tartness that plays well off the sweetness of the jelly and the heat of the chiles. It's great as a cranberry sauce substitute with turkey, a colorful accompaniment to roast pork or dabbed on soft goat or cream cheese as an appetizer.

If you don't like the heat, skip the chiles and standing time for a pretty pomegranate jelly.

Homemade Marshmallows

4 envelopes unflavored gelatin

3 cups sugar

1 1/4 cups white corn syrup

1/2teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon vanilla

About 3/4 cup powdered sugar

Generously coat a cookie sheet with sides with vegetable oil spray.

Pour 3/4 cup water into the deep bowl of an electric mixer. (Recipe works best with a stand mixer. If using a hand mixer, cut the recipe in half.) Sprinkle the gelatin over the water and allow to stand for at least 10 minutes while preparing the syrup.

Measure the sugar, corn syrup and salt into a heavy 1 1/2 quart saucepan. Bring to a boil, stirring for the first minute to be sure sugar is melted, and brushing the sides free of any granules. Once the liquid is boiling, do not stir until it reaches 235 to 240 degrees on a candy thermometer. This will take about 10 minutes.

Attach balloon-whisk beaters to mixer if available. (Regular beaters will work fine, but will take longer.) Add vanilla to the gelatin mixture.

Turn mixer on at its lowest speed. Very gradually pour in the hot syrup, taking care to avoid splashing. When all the syrup has been incorporated, gradually bring mixer up to its highest speed. Whip until mixture is tall and stiff. (This took 10 minutes with my KitchenAid, and the batter came to the top of the 2-quart bowl.)

Pour mixture into the prepared pan and smooth with a spatula lightly coated with vegetable oil spray. Allow to stand for at least a day to dry.

When marshmallow is set, turn it out onto a large cutting board coated with 1/2 cup of powdered sugar. Sift remaining 1/4 cup on top and spread with your hands until the marshmallow has no sticky spots.

Using a sharp knife coated in vegetable oil spray, slice a 1-inch strip from the shortest side, then cut strip into 10 squares. As you slice, lightly press the cut sides into the sugar on the cutting board.

Store in airtight container. Makes 110 marshmallows.

The Wichita Eagle—12/01/10

Cranberry Orange Vodka

1 bag (12 oz.) fresh or frozen cranberries

1 cup sugar

2 oranges, unpeeled

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1 (750-milliliter) bottle vodka

Rinse cranberries and place in food processor. Add the sugar and pulse briefly. Scrub the oranges, quarter, and add to cranberry mixture, pulsing until finely chopped. Add vanilla and process briefly. Scrape into a glass or plastic container with a tight-fitting lid. Pour in the vodka. Cover tightly, shake well and place in a cool, dark spot for a week.

Strain out the solids, pressing against a fine sieve to release all the juices. Strain vodka again through a coffee filter. Pour into 3 clean 1-pint bottles. Makes 3 gift bottles, each about 14.5 ounces. Store in refrigerator.

The Wichita Eagle—12/01/10

Maple Candied Walnuts

Vegetable oil spray

2 cups walnuts

4 tablespoons real maple syrup

2 tablespoons dark brown sugar

1 teaspoon salt, or to taste

1/2teaspoon freshly ground pepper

Ground cinnamon, ginger, cloves, five-spice powder and/or cayenne (optional)

Heat oven to 325 degrees. Generously coat an 11-by-14-inch jelly roll pan with vegetable oil. Toss the walnuts in a bowl with the syrup. In another bowl, mix the sugar, salt, pepper and additional spices if desired. Toss with the walnuts.

Spread the nuts on the prepared pan, using a fork coated with vegetable oil spray to break up any clumps. Place in oven for 5 minutes. Turn nuts over with a spatula. Turn oven down to 300 degrees and bake 5 to 8 minutes more, watching carefully to be sure nuts do not burn and stirring twice to break up any clumps. Nuts should be deep golden and bubbling.

Remove pan to wire rack, break up any clumps, then turn onto waxed or parchment paper and allow to cool completely. Store in airtight container. Makes 4 (4-ounce) gifts.

The Wichita Eagle—12/01/10

Easy Baked Toffee

Pecans, almonds, pistachios or macadamias may be substituted for the walnuts.

1 cup (2 sticks) butter

1 cup light brown sugar, packed

2 1/2 cups finely chopped walnuts

1 cup semisweet chocolate chips

Heat oven to 375 degrees. Lightly butter a 9-by-13-inch pan.

Place butter and brown sugar in a heavy, medium saucepan and bring just to a boil over medium heat. Stir in 2 cups of the nuts. Pour into the prepared pan and bake 15 minutes.

Remove from oven and sprinkle with the chocolate chips; when softened, spread evenly over toffee. Sprinkle remaining 1/2 cup nuts on top.

Let cool completely, then break into pieces. Store in an airtight container. Makes about 1 pound, or 60 pieces.

The Wichita Eagle—12/01/10

Microwave Pistachio Brittle

Almonds, pecans, walnuts, macadamia nuts, cashews or peanuts may be substituted for the pistachios.

Vegetable oil spray

1 cup sugar

1/2cup light corn syrup

1 cup roasted, shelled pistachios

1 teaspoon butter

1/2teaspoon vanilla

1/2teaspoon almond extract

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/3cup coarsely ground pistachios (optional)

Spray a cookie sheet well with vegetable oil; set aside.

Combine sugar and corn syrup in a 1 1/2-quart glass casserole or Pyrex measuring bowl. Microwave on high 4 minutes. Stir in pistachios. Microwave on high 3 to 5 minutes more, until brown.

Stir in butter, vanilla and almond extract. Microwave on high 1 to 2 minutes more, until pistachios are lightly brown and syrup very hot.

Coat a wooden spoon with vegetable oil and use it to stir in baking soda until light and foamy. Pour onto prepared cookie sheet. If desired, quickly sprinkle coarsely ground pistachios on top.

Let brittle cool on baking sheet 30 minutes to 1 hour. Flex sheet to remove brittle and break into small pieces. Store in airtight container.

Makes about 1 pound, 40 servings. A half-pound makes a generous gift.

The Wichita Eagle—12/01/10

Hot Peppered Pomegranate Jelly

I used tiny pequin peppers, but any type, such as ancho, is fine.

2 cups pomegranate juice

2 tablespoons dried hot chile peppers

1 tablespoon lemon juice

3 1/2 cups sugar

1 (3 oz.) packet liquid pectin

Have ready 20 ounces worth of glass jars with lids and rings, sterilized. (I made one 8-ounce plus three 4-ounce jars.)

Measure pomegranate juice into a non-reactive container with a lid. Crush the dried chilies with a fork and add, with their seeds. Shake and allow to stand, shaking from time to time, for 2 to 4 hours. Strain the chilies from the juice using several layers of coffee filter papers.

Pour the strained juice and the lemon juice into a nonreactive saucepan. Add the sugar. Bring to a boil over high heat, stirring until sugar dissolves. Stir in the liquid pectin (if you use dry pectin, be sure it dissolves completely). Return to a rolling boil and continue to boil hard, stirring, for 1 minute.

Remove from heat and skim off any foam. Pour immediately into prepared hot jars, leaving 1/4 inch head space. Wipe the rims of any drips and put on caps and rings. Immediately upend jars on a towel and let cool. Test for vacuum seal by pressing center of lid. It should not pop.

If any jars did not seal properly, keep refrigerated. Alternately, you can process jars right after filling in a hot water bath for 5 minutes.

Makes 20 ounces, 40 2-tablespoon servings.

The Wichita Eagle—12/01/10

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