Home-baked treats make the perfect festive present, says Brenda Costigan. With the addition of cellophane and a cheery ribbon, edible gifts are a delight to give and to receive
Edible gifts give enjoyment to several senses: sight, touch, smell and, most of all, taste. If you make the gift yourself, it becomes really special, and shows a sense of caring that money can’t buy.
A pretty little box, glass jar or dish can be given the personal touch by filling it with your favourite home-made goodies. Perhaps you made some lovely jam or chutney during the year? Put it in a jar — Ikea stocks lovely Kilner jars — dress it up with a seasonal ribbon, and you have the perfect gift. When planning your home-made gifts, choose foods that do not require immediate consumption. If your gift has a short shelf-life, then add a little use-by label. Pay attention to your presentation — crisp cellophane and shiny rosettes add a dash of colour.
MINCE PIES WITH MERINGUE TOPPING
The mincemeat-filled pastry bases are baked first, topless! When cool, they are removed from the bun tins and put on a flat baking tin. Then the meringue mixture is piped or spooned on top and the finished pies are baked very slowly until the meringue is crisp — this takes about an hour or so. The topping stays crisp for quite a few days, so the pies are suitable to be given as presents.
For the shortcrust pastry, you will need:
175g (6oz) flour
110g (4oz) butter, cut in small lumps
Approx 3-6 tablespoons cold water
Put the flour into a bowl, add the small lumps of butter and rub until the mixture is like fine breadcrumbs. This can be done in a food processor in seconds. Add just enough cold water to to bind the pastry. Knead it just a little, then wrap it in clingfilm and chill it in the fridge for at least half an hour before using. It will keep for a couple of days in the fridge, or it can be frozen until needed.
You will need:
300g (11oz) shortcrust pastry (see above)
About 12 generous teaspoons mincemeat
2-3 teaspoons whiskey or orange juice
2 egg whites
110g (4oz) caster sugar
Preheat the oven to 190°C, 375°F, Gas 5.
Roll out the shortcrust pastry thinly, and cut it with a cutter 7.5cm (3in) in diameter, or one slightly larger. Use the cut-out pastry to line a lightly greased 12-hole bun tin. Put the pastry in the fridge to chill for half an hour or so. Meanwhile, put the mincemeat into a saucepan with the whiskey or orange juice, whichever you are using. Cook, stirring over a moderate heat to melt the little white bits of suet. Don't allow it to evaporate. Spoon the hot mincemeat into the cool pastry cases and bake the pies for about 20 minutes until the pastry is cooked. Stand the tin on a wire tray to cool. Then, loosen each pie gently with a sharp-pointed knife, and place each one on a baking tin, which you have lined with baking parchment.
Preheat the oven to 150°C, 300°F, Gas 2. Whisk the egg whites until they’re frothy and beat in the caster sugar, a little at a time. Continue beating until the mixture is very stiff and shiny. Using a forcing bag and rose pipe, pipe a swirl of meringue on top of each mince pie. Alternatively, you can spoon the meringue on to each pie. It is important to cover the mincemeat filling completely. Bake in the preheated oven for about one hour until meringue is crisp. Lift on to a wire tray to cool.
Dating back to the 12th Century, this traditional Christmas speciality from Sienna, Italy, has many variations. This one is a real humdinger for those who, like me, adore nuts! It may seem very hard when it comes from the oven, but if you leave it for a day or two, it will soften. In the photograph, I have left the panforte uncut, but you can cut into thin slices with a sharp bread knife, or simply break it roughly into little pieces. It makes a wonderful present packed in a pretty box, or arranged on a small cake board, covered with crisp cellophane paper, tied with a pretty ribbon and a sprig of holly. It keeps for ages. Use rice paper to line the base and sides — there’s no need for cutting and fitting, just overlap the pieces to cover the tin. Rice paper can be bought in a delicatessen or an Asian shop.
You will need:
175g (6oz) whole blanched almonds
110g 4oz) shelled walnuts
110g (4oz) hazelnuts, skins removed
125g (generous 4oz) good-quality candied
50g (2oz) candied pineapple, chopped
50g (2oz) glace cherries, chopped
50g (2oz) flour
1 level teaspoonful cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground cloves
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon cocoa powder (optional)
175g (6oz) sugar
150g (5oz) clear honey
You will also need:
23cm (9in) springform tin with a removable base
Rice paper — enough to generously cover the base and come up the sides of the tin a little. Because it is edible, there is no need to trim the rice paper, it can stick up here and there. If rice paper is unavailable, use a double layer of sheets of filo pastry, brushed with melted butter Icing sugar, to serve
Preheat the oven to 170°C, 325°F, Gas 3. Roughly chop the blanched almonds, the shelled walnuts and the skinned hazelnuts, leaving them quite coarse in texture. Put them into a bowl with the chopped candied peel, chopped candied pineapple and chopped glace cherries. Add the flour, the cinammon, the ground cloves, the ground nutmeg and the cocoa powder, if you are using it, and mix well. Put the sugar and the clear honey into a wide-based saucepan and heat gently until the sugar melts. Boil briskly for about two minutes until the mixture becomes slightly syrupy — if you have a sugar thermometer, it should read 105°C, 221°F.
Add the nut mixture to the syrup in the saucepan, and mix well. Quickly pour the lot into the prepared tin, spread it out and bake for about 35 minutes or so. The mixture will not change much, but, starting from the outside, it will get a slightly bubbly look. When this bubbly appearance has spread over the whole top, take the panforte out of the oven and stand the tin on a wire tray. It will be very soft, but, as it cools, it will get very hard. After a day or two, it will mellow. Dust it with icing sugar and break into small pieces or, better still, cut it into very narrow slices with a sharp knife. Delicious.
VANILLA AND WALNUT FUDGE
I like to use fresh milk when making fudge. A sugar thermometer takes the guesswork out of the cooking time, but, if you don’t have one, follow the soft-ball stage, as described below. Use a pretty box or a plate to present the fudge, and wrap it in see-through cellophane.
You will need:
550g (1¼lb) caster sugar (if preferred, use light brown sugar)
275ml (½pt) fresh milk
150g (5oz) butter
1 teaspoon vanilla essence
50g (2oz) raisins
50g (2oz) chopped toasted walnuts or hazelnuts
Use a 20-21cm (8-8¼in) square tin or dish, lightly greased or lined with baking parchment.
To judge the soft-ball stage:
If you have never made fudge before, it is a good idea to do the following test once the sugar is dissolved in the mix (see directions below). Drop a half teaspoon of the resulting syrup into a cup of cold water. The thin syrup will simply dissolve into the water, as it isn’t yet ready. Doing the test at this point will enable you to see the difference between how the syrup behaves when it’s ready and when it’s not.
Continue boiling and, when the syrup seems to be getting thicker, draw the saucepan off the heat and do the test again. If the mixture is ready, the syrup will not dissolve this time; it will be firm enough to be shaped into a ball with the fingers, yet soft enough to be squashed flat. However, if the syrup forms into a hard ball, it is cooked too much! Put the caster or light brown sugar, whichever you are using, the fresh milk and the butter into a deep, heavy-based saucepan. Stir over a gentle heat until the sugar is dissolved. Bring to the boil, stirring most of the time, then continue boiling until the syrup reaches the soft-ball stage (115°C, 240°F), as described above. This could take about 15 minutes or more. Stir in the vanilla essence, and leave the saucepan to one side to cool a little.
When the fudge is still lukewarm, stir it vigorously with a wooden spoon until the mixture becomes creamy. It should begin to lose its glossy look and become more matt in appearance. Stir in the raisins and the chopped, toasted walnuts or hazelnuts, whichever you are using, and pour the mixture into the prepared tin. Spread it out. Leave it until it’s firm enough to hold the mark of a knife and then mark out the square shapes. Allow the fudge to cool completely, then cut it into squares.
These are one of my favourite seasonal treats, and they look very pretty presented in a glass jar or a pretty little basket, with a Christmas decoration attached. The ground rice is optional, but it gives a slight crunch to the macaroons, which is rather nice.
You will need:
100g ground almonds
175g (6oz) caster sugar
24g (1oz) cornflour
24g (1oz) ground rice (optional)
½ teaspoon almond essence
2 medium egg whites, lightly whisked
12-16 blanched whole almonds
Mix together the ground almonds, the caster sugar, the cornflour and the ground rice, if you are using it. Add the almond essence to the lightly whisked egg whites. Add just enough of this egg mixture to the dry ingredients to make a soft, but not runny mixture — the softer the mixture, the more the macaroons will spread out during baking. Cover a baking sheet with the rice paper, spoon out the mixture in little blobs, allowing a little space between each one. Press a blanched almond into the centre of each macaroon. Bake for about 20-25 minutes in the oven — preheated to 170°C, 325°F, Gas 3 — until they become pale gold. Cool them completely on a wire tray, then trim away any excess rice paper, and store in an airtight container.
It may be a useful idea to bake two or three little macaroons first, and then you can judge for yourself the resulting size and texture. If the mixture has been made too runny or soft, add a little more caster sugar and ground almonds to it.
CHOCOLATE MARZIPAN SWEETS
Make your favourite almond icing/paste recipe and shape into little balls the size of a large marble. To dry the surface slightly, leave them sitting overnight on a sheet of baking parchment. Next day, using a skewer or wooden cocktail stick, dip them into melted chocolate. Sprinkle the surface with chocolate vermicelli and place them once more on the parchment. Leave them until the chocolate sets. Pack these sweets in little open-topped boxes, wrap in cellophane and tie with ribbon.
MINI CHRISTMAS CAKES
Make your favourite cake, and, when it’s cold, cut into 10cm (4in) squares. Cover the squares with almond icing and instant royal icing. Place the mini cakes on little cake boards. Decorate them prettily with little Christmassy things. For example, dip a fresh sprig of rosemary into a frothy beaten egg white. Sprinkle it with caster sugar and allow to dry in a warm place. When it dries, you can use it to decorate a cake.