Shoppers looking to save on holiday gifts may want to spend less time in the mall and more time in the kitchen.
Despite a record Black Friday weekend, the average shopper is expected to spend about 2% less on gifts, decorations, and other things this year, says the National Retail Federation. The industry group also reported an increase in shoppers heading to supermarkets and craft and fabric stores, among other venues, to get their gifts.
That’s a pretty smart way to curb your spending hangover and still end up with a gift that friends, family and coworkers will love. Homemade gifts can cost just a few dollars for a batch big enough to divvy up among several friends. With creative packaging, a homemade gift looks more like foodie couture than a budget option. “Rather than saying, ‘I’m looking for ways to save money,’ I like to say ‘I’m looking for ways to be more thoughtful,’ says chef and cookbook author Angela McKeller, host of the podcast “Kick Back and Kook!” She adds, “It really is the thought that counts.”
We asked chefs, bloggers and other home cooks for their favorite recipes that double as holiday gifts. Here are seven homemade goodies to add to your shopping list:
“Fancy vinegars can sell for upwards of $15 per bottle, but you can make a few of your own for roughly $1 worth of ingredients apiece,” says Anne Maxfield of “The Accidental Locavore.” She puts the herbal vinegar in recycled bottles to further cut costs.
“A very Mediterranean-inspired treat that I love sharing includes stuffing Medjool dates with almonds and dipping them into dark chocolate,” says Rania Batayneh, a nutrition and wellness coach at Essential Nutrition For You. For another variation, you can also stuff dried apricots with pistachios and then dip them into dark and white chocolate.
Ditch the $20, four-to-a-box, designer caramels. Pamela Braun, of “My Man’s Belly,” says her recipe is so popular among friends and family that she starts getting requests for them in September. “The begging continues until well after the holidays,” she says.
“At Christmas, I like to find antique food tins and have my niece and nephew help me decorate inexpensive wooden boxes from the local craft store to fill with wonderful baked goodies,” says McKeller. Her favorites are the Snowcaps. To make snowcap meringues, preheat the oven to 200 degrees Fahrenheit, butter and flour a baking sheet, and in a glass or metal bowl, use an electric mixer to whip four egg whites until foamy. “It helps to wipe down the bowl with vinegar first,” she says, to eliminate any traces of oil. Then, add two and a quarter cups sugar, a little at a time, while whipping at medium speed.
Add a teaspoon butter extract and continue to whip until mixture becomes stiff and shiny, like satin. Stop mixing, and transfer the mixture to a large plastic bag, cutting off the bottom corner to use as a piping bag. Pipe the meringue out onto the prepared baking sheet, pulling up after each Snowcap is piped to give it a nice peak on top. Leave plain, or top with mini-chocolate chips or crushed peppermint. Place the cookies in the oven, and leave the door open a crack (place a wooden spoon in the door, if needed). Bake for three hours, or until the meringues are dry and can easily be removed from the cookie sheet. Line the storage boxes with parchment paper and seal tightly.
Grocery store granola isn’t nearly as impressive as one created in your kitchen. Stephanie Hua of “Lick My Spoon” says this version is a go-to on her homemade holiday gift list. Package the granola in canning jars or decorating bags, and add a holiday ribbon for a festive touch.
A friend of Frugal Foodie’s makes cookie jars every year. The gist is simple: Layer the dry ingredients for cookies into big canning jars, and wrap the lids with festive ribbon and an instruction card. The result looks pretty, and the recipient has everything he or she needs to make yummy cookies. There are plenty of variations, so feel free to get creative. For example, Hua uses red and green M&M candies in her holiday version.
For a hearty variation of the cookie jar, Susan Palmquist of “Budget Smart Girl” layers soup ingredients in a mason jar. She uses a third of a cup lentils or yellow split peas, two-thirds of a cup dried tortellini, a quarter cup sun-dried tomatoes, one bouillon cube, a teaspoon and a half each of dried basil and dried thyme, and a teaspoon of dried minced onion. The instruction label should read: “Empty the ingredients into a three-quart sauce pan and add five cups of water. Bring everything to a boil, then reduce heat, cover and simmer soup for 45 minutes, or until the lentils and peas are tender.” Express your palette and tailor the ingredients to your taste. “I like to use lentils with the meat tortellini and the split peas with the chicken or cheese variety,” Palmquist says.
Frugal Foodie is a journalist based in New York City who spends her days writing about personal finance and obsessing about what she’ll have for dinner. Chat with her on Twitter through @MintFoodie.