Monday, December 19, 2011

Holiday Treats and Gift Ideas...6 days 'till Christmas!

It's nearly Christmas and I'm nearly ready...  My kitchen has become a little Santa's Workshop of homemade treats and goodies, ribbons and stickers and tissue paper... so if you're still looking for some gift ideas, then I have five recipes here for you, plus an extra one just for you after all your hard work in the kitchen.

To share with you all today, I've made these treats:
  • Cranberry Orange Preserves
  • Sugar and Spice Nuts
  • Almond Cranberry Caramel Popcorn
  • Peppermint Bark
  • Nutmeg Pots de Creme (this is the bonus one YOU get to eat) :)

In addition to all the cooking and baking, I took a few photos of my table arrangement, just to show how even a small table like ours can still have room for a pretty arrangement that doesn't cost too much.  I think the glass of candy canes tied with green twine, snowman candle holders (from the seasonal aisle at the grocery store) and the sparkly Christmas tree candles (Bed, Bath and Beyond), while simple and inexpensive, look really pretty for our Christmas dinner this weekend.

Now for the treats, I'll start with the caramel...  It's no secret that I have a really difficult time making caramel.  I don't know what it is, but I just can't seem to master it.  I try all the tips and tricks that all the experts suggest, and still every time, I end up scrubbing a big, grainy crystallized mess out of the pot.  Yesterday I tried three times, and each time it was ruined.  It's a good thing sugar is so cheap.  Those sugar crystals are out to get me.

Jamie, being the sweet and wonderful person he is, went out and picked up some cans of sweetened condensed milk for me.  And flowers.  :)

While Jamie was out, I whipped up a little Nutmeg Pot de Creme for dessert that night - because pot de creme is something I can do well, and I had to do something to make up for three failed batches of caramel.  I made it a little less rich than the original version (see recipe link below), but I liked the light and fluffy texture the pudding had, and the flavor was amazing.

After making Cranberry Orange Compote for Thanksgiving, I was inspired to make jam, and came up with this recipe for Cranberry Orange Preserves.  Cranberries are on sale at the grocery store now, so it's a good time to buy a whole bunch for a recipe like this. This jam is a little reminiscent of orange marmalade, since there's a whole orange, peel and all, in the jam, but it has a wonderfully sweet and tangy flavor, and I love the combination of cranberry and orange with lots of Christmas spices.

I don't know anyone who can resist a bowl of nuts, and these Sugar and Spice Nuts are completely addictive.  They're sweet, crunchy and salty, with hints of vanilla, orange, cinnamon and nutmeg, and you'll want to start nibbling on them as soon as you take them out of the oven.

Last year, I found a recipe for Almond Cranberry Caramel Popcorn that I made and LOVED, and since then I've improved it even more.  This sticky caramel popcorn has just the right amount of saltiness and sweetness, with crunchy almonds sprinkled throughout and tart dried cranberries.

One thing to watch out for, though...  the unpopped kernels.  After I popped the popcorn, I made the mistake of not picking out the unpopped kernels before pouring on the caramel.  Needless to say, we had to chew very carefully to avoid biting down on a kernel (my dad broke a tooth that way once!), so I didn't end up packing this up for gifts.  I'll make another batch soon, though, and will be more careful about the kernels next time!

And last but not least...  the Peppermint Bark.  I adore peppermint bark and really wanted to make my own this year.  At the last minute, I decided to mold the chocolate in Christmas cookie cutters (instead of pouring it on a baking sheet and breaking into pieces).  Molding the chocolate was very time-consuming, but I wouldn't for a second say it wasn't worth the effort, because just how adorable are those pieces of bark in cute little Christmas shapes?

For all your gift packaging, craft stores have all this stuff on sale right now - I got all the little boxes, ribbons and labels for 50% off at Michaels over the weekend and had everything I needed to make the packages look completely adorable.

I hope you enjoy these gift ideas and the yummy treats!  I'd love to hear all of your ideas for homemade gifts, goodies and pretty packaging.

Cranberry Orange Preserves
printable recipe

  • 1 1/2 pounds fresh or frozen cranberries (2 12-ounce bags / about 6 cups)
  • 1 seedless navel orange, unpeeled and quartered (this can be left out if you don't like the marmalade flavor it will add)
  • juice of 1/2 an orange (about 2-3 tablespoons orange juice)
  • cinnamon stick
  • 1/2 tablespoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla bean paste (or vanilla extract)
  • 1 1/4 cups water
  • 1 teaspoon unsalted butter
  • 7 tablespoons classic pectin (not the no-sugar/low-sugar kind)
  • 5 cups granulated sugar

Place the cranberries in a large stock pot.   Place the orange quarters, including the peel, and orange juice in your food processor and puree into a chunky pulp.  Add to the stock pot.  Add the cinnamon stick, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, vanilla and water to the pot.

Over medium heat, simmer the fruit and spices for about 20-30 minutes, until the cranberries burst and the flavors develop.  Mash the fruit with a potato masher, leaving it as chunky as you like.  Stir in the butter (this helps prevent a foamy texture to the jam).

Sprinkle the pectin over the mixture and stir to combine.  Turn the heat to high and bring to a boil, while stirring constantly.  Add the sugar all at once and stir to dissolve.  Return to a vigorous boil, while stirring constantly, and boil hard for 1 minute.  Remove from the heat.  Remove the cinnamon stick from the pot.

Ladle the hot jam into hot sterilized jars and process in a water bath according to standard canning procedures, or simply cool and store in the fridge to be eaten within a few months. (See my previous post on canning.)

For a gift, tie with a pretty ribbon and label.

Yields 8 half-pint jars (8 cups) of jam.

Peppermint Bark
printable recipe
  • 1 pound bittersweet chocolate (or semi-sweet), chopped
  • 1 pound white chocolate, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon peppermint extract
  • 1 cup crushed peppermint pieces
  • sea salt (optional)
  • Christmas cookie cutters

Place the bittersweet chocolate in a heatproof bowl, and set the bowl over a pan of gently simmering water (the bottom of the bowl should not be touching the water).  Melt the chocolate, stirring occasionally, until smooth.

Meanwhile, line a baking sheet with foil and place the cookie cutters on the foil.  Pour the melted bittersweet chocolate into the cookie cutters (I poured the chocolate into a piping tool to make this step easier).  Use the pointed end of a chopstick to get the chocolate into all the nooks and crannies of the cookie cutters.  The chocolate should be about 1/8 inch thick.  If you don't have many cookie cutters to fill at once, then you will need to make these in batches - set aside any unused chocolate for the next set.

Place the baking sheet/s in the freezer and chill for 20 minutes.  Meanwhile, melt the white chocolate; once melted and smooth, remove from the heat and let cool for 5 minutes before whisking in the peppermint extract. (Adding the extract while the chocolate is too hot may cause the chocolate to seize up.)

Remove the baking sheet from the freezer and let stand at room temperature for 5 minutes. (If you try to pour the white chocolate over the dark chocolate straight from the freezer, then it will harden too quickly before you can spread it out, so allowing the dark chocolate to warm up slightly will make this next step easier.)

The white chocolate has a thicker consistency, but try to use the same amount as you did of dark chocolate, so that it comes out evenly.  Pour the white chocolate over the dark chocolate, using a chopstick again to spread out the chocolate to the edges and corners of the cookie cutters.  The white chocolate should also be 1/8 inch thick, so that now you have a 1/4 inch thick piece of bark with both layers of chocolate.  Before the white chocolate sets, immediately sprinkle with the crushed peppermint, and add a tiny sprinkle of sea salt, before moving on to the next one.  Cover any unused white chocolate until you're ready to make the next batch.

Place the baking sheet in the freezer again to thoroughly chill, about 30 minutes.  Remove from the freezer.  Lift the cookie cutters off the foil and carefully loosen the chocolate from the cutters, using the blunt end of a chopstick to help push it out of the mold.  Handling the chocolate as little as possible, so as not to melt it with your fingers, transfer the pieces of bark to a clean baking sheet and place in the refrigerator.

Follow the whole process again until you've used up all the chocolate.  Alternatively, instead of pouring the chocolate into the cookie cutters, you can simply spread the chocolate evenly on a baking sheet, and then break into pieces after it's chilled.

For a gift, place the bark into a tissue-lined box and tie with a ribbon.  A candy cane on top looks pretty.

Yields 2 pounds of peppermint bark.

Sugar and Spice Nuts
printable recipe
  • 2 pounds (about 6 cups) unsalted nuts, such as almonds, pecans or walnuts (or a mix)
  • 1 1/4 cups granulated sugar
  • 2 egg whites
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon grown nutmeg
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried grated orange peel
Preheat the oven to 300 F.  Line two baking sheets with foil and spray the foil with non-stick spray.

Place the nuts in a large bowl and make sure there are no pieces of shell.  (If using salted nuts, just reduce or eliminate the salt in the recipe.)  In a separate bowl, whisk together the remaining ingredients.  Pour mixture over the nuts and stir to coat thoroughly.

Spread nuts in a single layer on the baking sheets.  Bake for 20 minutes.  Lift foil off the pans and place on the counter to cool completely.  Break into pieces and store at room temperature, or package into decorative boxes or bags for gifts.

Nutmeg Pots de Creme
printable recipe
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla bean paste
  • 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 2 whole eggs, plus 2 yolks
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
Preheat the oven to 325 F.  Spray 4 individual ramekins with non-stick spray.

In a medium saucepan, combine the cream, milk, vanilla and nutmeg.  Bring to a simmer over medium heat.  In a separate bowl, whisk together the eggs, brown sugar and salt.  Just when the cream mixture starts to bubble, remove from the heat.  Very slowly, pour the hot cream into the egg mixture, whisking constantly, until well blended.  Divide between the ramekins.

Place the ramekins in a baking dish and fill the baking dish with hot water so that it comes halfway up the sides of the ramekins.  Cover with foil.

Bake for 35-40 minutes, until the edges of the custard is set but the centers are still jiggly.  Cool on the counter for 1 hour, then chill in the fridge for two hours before serving (or serve warm, if desired).  Top with whipped cream and a sprinkle of nutmeg.

Yields 4 servings.

Recipe adapted from Not Without Salt.

Almond Cranberry Caramel Popcorn
printable recipe
  • 12 cups popped popcorn (1/2 cup kernels)
  • 1 cup dried cranberries (could substitute other dried fruit such as cherries or apples)
  • 1 cup whole salted almonds
  • 1/4 cup butterscotch chips
  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
  • 1/2 cup packed brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup light corn syrup
  • 2 tablespoons orange juice
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 - 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried orange peel
  • 1 teaspoon nutmeg

Preheat the oven to 275 F.  Place the popcorn in a large roasting pan and sprinkle the cherries, almonds and butterscotch chips over the popcorn.  Set aside.

In a medium saucepan, combine the butter, brown sugar and corn syrup; cook over medium heat until the butter is melted.  Stir in the orange juice and bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring constantly.  Once mixture comes to a boil, boil for 2 minutes, continuing to stir constantly.  Remove from heat and stir in the vanilla and baking soda - mixture will be foamy.  Stir in the salt, orange peel and nutmeg.

Pour caramel mixture over the popcorn mixture and stir to coat evenly.  Bake at 275 for 30 minutes, stirring twice.  Place a large piece of foil on the counter and spray with non-stick spray.  Spread the popcorn on the foil and allow to cool and harden before storing in an airtight container.


  1. Great gift ideas. Thanks for all the wonderful recipes.

  2. All of these photos look like they came right out of a magazine. I love homemade gifts and would be delighted to get any of these. Great ideas!

  3. Wow! Everything looks amazing - as always! I love your tablescape! Simple and stunning!


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