Don’t buy it, make it

2010-12-10 10:27

Buying presents is the bane of Christmas – there’s ­always one relative whose likes and dislikes are an eternal mystery to everyone and I invariably draw his name out of the Secret Santa hat.

Also, as belts tighten and we all look forward to an economically tough 2011, it’s a great time to start spending less money and more time on presents.

The easiest way to start with do-it-yourself gifts is in the kitchen – and it needn’t take that long either.

If you don’t sterilise your jars ­properly your presents might well go vrot before they can be enjoyed. If you have a dishwasher, that’s good enough so long as you keep your grubby ­fingers off the inside. If you have a steriliser for baby bottles this will also work. Otherwise wash the jars in warm soapy water, rinse well and dry in a low oven (140°C).

Simple but delicious, vanilla sugar is quick to make. All you need is a sterilised jar to put it in. For every vanilla pod you will need 500g of sugar. Simply put the sugar in the jar, take a sharp knife and open up the pod lengthwise to expose the seeds, then chop the pod into three and push them into the sugar.

You should make it a month before you are giving it away to let the vanilla really embed itself, but it’ll improve with time and can be kept for a year. Also, as the sugar gets used it can be topped up with more, which will also be infused with the vanilla.

Another easy-peasy sugar recipe is mint sugar. This combination of lots and lots of mint and sugar is delicious over acidic summer fruits such as pineapple.

Make the mint sugar as strong as you like by adding more mint. For every cup of mint add two of sugar. Chop the mint finely in a food processor, then either add the sugar and blend the two or, if you want it chunkier, stir the sugar into the mint. Put in little jars and wrap.

Coarse sea salt is always delicious and if you add a selection of fresh herbs to it, it’s even better and the salt is a natural preservative too. A great idea is to use smaller bottles and make a trio of herb salts as a gift – for example, one with fresh dill for fish dishes, one with rosemary to rub all over roast lamb and one with oregano and basil for pasta dishes.

For every cup of herbs add two of salt and you could also add some lemon, or even better lime, zest to some. Another idea is to add peppercorns (which ever colour you fancy), dried chilli and star anise to a jar of sea salt, about two teaspoons of each for 250g of salt.

Another easy idea is to make up spice packs for your friends. If you have a favourite selection of flavours – mix them up and give them as a gift. How about turmeric, paprika, salt, cumin and dried chilli? You could add dried herbs – like thyme, coriander or oregano instead. Add a handwritten recipe to the jar too. Or break up a cinnamon stick with some cardamom pods and a few cloves, attach it to a small jar of uncooked rice and attach a recipe for rice pudding.

The obvious foodie present is, of course, something steeped in alcohol. Most delicious are cherries, fresh ones, jammed into a jar and covered with brandy – the stuff you’d drink, not rot-gut.

Also, you can get very nice local cherry liqueur, which is a great place to put blueberries, which are yummy poured over ice-cream.

Another tasty brew to put on the table at dessert time are finely chopped almonds and glace cherries steeped in Cointreau orange liqueur.

Of course, you can put raisins in booze, though they are a boring choice, especially as its berry season in Africa. Try sliced strawberries in Vodka or perhaps spice things up by adding red chillies – very festive.

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