I’m like those department stores you hate that begin selling Christmas decorations well before you’ve even chosen a Halloween costume. But hear me out. You may not have started thinking about the holidays but for some of these gifts, you need to start now, hence the early post. Others on this list you can start a few days before exchanging presents. I’ve listed these gift ideas chronologically to help you plan.
Most of these gifts cost little to make and require only a bit of effort. But they look impressive. Jars are the little black dress of food—everything looks good in them.
Prepare these gifts in October or early November.
1. Vanilla extract
Start this as soon as possible. Here’s all you do: Split three vanilla beans, not quite to the top. Place in a jar. Pour in a cup of vodka, bourbon, brandy, rum or single-malt whiskey. Close the jar. Shake the jar every week or so. Your delicious and inexpensive vanilla extract is ready in about two months. If you start this a bit late, don’t worry. Your recipient might not use it right away. Tell them when they can use it. For more info, read this blog post.
To make this delicious honey wine, dilute 1 cup of raw honey with 4 cups of water in a jar and wait. Stir it daily. That’s about all there is to it. Depending on your kitchen environment, this ferments in a couple of weeks. I usually let mine go for much longer, about six weeks, for a more alcoholic brew. If you want to transfer the mead to flip-top bottles for your recipient, fill them a week or so before you give this away, and depending on how bubbly it is (i.e., how much carbon dioxide it contains), burp the bottle every few days to avoid geysers and explosions. Here are detailed instructions for making mead.
Start this one a month or more out—but only if you know your recipient well! It might not make the best teacher gift for example. But if someone close to you regularly gargles with Listerine or Scope mouthwash, they may like this alternative. To make this mouthwash, steep a bunch of spices in vodka—I use cinnamon sticks, cloves and star anise—shake occasionally, wait and after a month or so, strain and dilute to use. For more instructions, go here.
4. Preserved lemons
These cost a bundle in the store—if you can find them. I have a lemon tree so mine cost basically nothing. This past winter, I prepped six jars and still managed to run out. These add intense flavor to Indian dishes, hummus, bean dishes, soup… Traditionally, they go into a Moroccan chicken tagine. Here is a Yotam Ottolenghi recipe for a vegetable tagine. Cut organic lemons (you don’t want pesticides or wax on skins you’ll eat) in quarters but leave attached at the end, stuff with salt, stuff into a jar, pour lemon juice over and wait for a month before eating. Here are the full directions. Other ferments to start about a month out include hot peppers and sauerkraut.
Work on these a few weeks or a month before Christmas. For some, you’ll need starters, which, if you don’t have, will require at least a week to bubble to life.
5. Ginger beer
You can start this a few weeks out. The longer it ferments, the boozier it gets. But it’s highly carbonated so burp (i.e., open) your bottles every two days, or even every day, depending. To make ginger beer, you first need to make a ginger bug. That can take about a week so plan accordingly. Here is my ginger beer recipe.
6. Sourdough crackers
When Chandra and I first started dating, I baked these for him often. I texted pictures of them. I texted pictures of my sourdough starter. Resistance was futile. Mwahahaha! These cheesy-tasting-cheese-free crackers freeze really well so you can make them a few weeks in advance if you prefer. If you don’t want to freeze them, make them the day before you give them away, or the morning of. You’ll need a sourdough starter for these, which can take a couple of weeks to get going. As with the ginger beer above, plan accordingly. Here is the cracker recipe.
7. Looseleaf chai blend
You can make this one any time but you’ll need to first buy and eat oranges and dry the peels (again go for unwaxed, organic oranges). Mix chopped dry peels with black tea and spices such as cinnamon sticks, cloves, cardamom pods, star anise, coriander seeds, black peppercorns and ginger. I used to buy a looseleaf chai until I realized I had been paying a lot of money for all those orange peels in there. Find the full instructions for looseleaf chai here.
My kombucha brews in one week, after which I bottle it, store at room temperature for two days and then refrigerate. It tastes best young, so make it no earlier than a couple of weeks before you give it away. Even in the refrigerator it will continue to ferment slowly and become more vinegary. The only trick to making kombucha is finding a SCOBY, the culture that ferments your tea. You can often find them on Craigslist. They grow like crazy and people need to unload them before they take over their kitchens. Find instructions here for brewing kombucha.
9. Candied citrus peels
This makes a small amount of candy but it tastes fantastic! I really like to use mandarins for this. My daughter has also made these with lemon peels. So good. These taste like gumdrops with an intense citrus flavor, made with actual citrus rather than nasty chemicals formulated in a lab to taste like citrus. I find removing the pith rather time consuming so you may want to make these ahead. They keep in sugar for a long time. Here is the recipe.
Work on these the week you’ll give them away for optimum freshness.
10. Cookie mix
As I get near the end of this post, I have just realized that I have basically written my wish list this year… For the chocolate chip cookie mix pictured above, you can fill your jar in a few minutes after you’ve bought all the ingredients. If you do lots of baking at the holidays, you probably already have all of the ingredients on hand. Include the directions and voila, check off another person on your list. Go here for the post with full instructions.
11. Staples in jars
For the crazy jar lady on your list, how about several jars filled with pantry staples? Above, I have flour, chickpeas, sugar, brown rice, white rice and popcorn. My daughter worked this summer at a restaurant that tossed these giant jars! I have about 30 of them and I gave at least 20 away. You could start looking for jars now (I’ve scored really nice bail-top jars at thrift shops) and—to ensure fresh ingredients—fill them the week you’ll give them away.
Before you fill the jars at the store, first have them weighed (i.e., tared)! The cashier will deduct the weight of the jar from the overall weight. You don’t want to pay for the weight of the heavy jar!
Unlike sauerkraut, which ferments for a couple of months or longer, kimchi is ready in a few days. Traditionally, kimchi calls for fish sauce. I add dried kelp granules instead. They add a bit of a fishy flavor and aroma. The spice in kimchi—gochugaru—makes this fermented food highly addictive. When I have kimchi on hand, I eat it every single day until I run out. I adore it with avocado slices. Find my simple kimchi recipe here.
I would love to receive a jar of granola (or any of these gifts!). Unlike the fermented foods I’ve included in this post, granola needs little planning ahead. Make it a couple of days before you give it away and it will stay fresh and delicious until your recipient gobbles it all up. You need oats to make this but in addition, all sorts of things can go in, a handful of this nut, a cup of that seed. It’s really good with almond meal mixed in or wheat germ. Add some oil and sweetener, bake, cool and transfer to jars. Read my granola post here.
Bonus gift idea!
My workshops. Okay, they don’t come in a jar but attendees do need jars to store their starters so you could give them an upcycled jar to use in the class if you like. Click here to check out my online classes.
If you would rather give experiences as gifts, I wrote a post about that last year. You can read “Make Memories, Not Waste” here.