Christmas is for sharing, and some of the best gifts to share are the ones you’ve made yourself. The only snag about edible gifts is that once you’ve conceived and created them, put them up in clever containers and wrapped and labeled them with a holiday flourish, it can be a bit of a wrench to part with them. Steel yourself — or better still, make enough to keep some for yourself.
Winter chutneys go beautifully with a holiday ham, meat or game pie, or pâté en croûte. This super-simple date chutney (see recipe below) — a recipe from my mother, who used to make it every Christmas — is a double pleasure because it’s just a leisurely chopping and mixing job. There’s no cooking at all, so the apartment is not invaded with penetrating vinegary fumes. It benefits from keeping for a few weeks, so the flavors ripen nicely and will last for several months.
If you have herbs growing in your garden or terrace, the more robust perennial ones like rosemary, thyme and winter savory will still be good to go. Throw some in a food processor with sea salt and grind till fine for a wonderfully aromatic herby salt (see recipe below). The color when freshly ground is a delicate herbaceous green. This will fade after a few weeks, but the flavor lingers on. Add a note to the gift label with serving suggestions: It’s wonderful scattered over roast vegetables either before they go into the oven or as they come out (for even more flavor) or sprinkled onto focaccia or other bread before baking.
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The softer, more delicate herbs work best in a moist mix like pesto. Instead of the usual basil-pine nut combo, try one with pumpkin seeds, loads of flat-leaf parsley and grated Parmesan or Grana Padano, whizzed together to a verdant paste. A bright green blob floated on top of deep orange pumpkin soup is a thing of beauty, or you can stir it into pasta or risotto or serve with cold turkey, duck breasts or grilled fish.
Around Christmas here in Alsace, France, on the border with Switzerland and Germany, baking reaches fever pitch at this time of year. Whether you visit friends at home, buy bread at the baker’s or attend the local hunt, you will be plied with Guetzli (Switzerland), bredele (Alsace) or Weihnachtsbrödle (southern Germany) at every turn. And here I have to own up to my sad little secret: I really, really don’t care for them and find that, at a time of major carb-overload, most are just not worth the calories (for me). However, I do make an honorable exception for Brunsli (see recipe below), moist, dark chocolate, almond-laden cookies laced with Kirsch brandy from Basel, Switzerland.
Finally, if life gives you lemons, make citrons confits, or salted lemons (see recipe below), which will bring a golden Mediterranean glow to your kitchen and make an especially welcome midwinter gift. In this recipe, from chef Thierry Voisin, former chef at Les Crayères in Reims, France, the lemons are first blanched, then packed into jars and covered with a sweet-salty syrup. They are a bit softer and less briny than the kinds packed in a jar with kosher salt, and they’re ready to use sooner than the salt-packed quarters. The finely diced peel (discard the pith) gives a bright, zesty lift to meat stews, tagines, couscous and all manner of vegetable dishes.
Fresh (Uncooked) Date Chutney
Prep time: 10 minutes (15, if you don’t use a food processor)
Total time: 10 to 15 minutes plus 2 to 3 weeks of maturing
Yield: Makes 4 1-pound (450-gram) jars
1 pound (450 grams) pitted dates
1 pound (450 grams) raisins or sultanas
1 pound (450 grams) apples
1 pound (450 grams) onions
1 pound (450 grams) brown or raw sugar
1 tablespoon salt
Plenty of freshly ground pepper
1/2 teaspoon cayenne
2 cups (1/2 liter) cider vinegar or wine vinegar
1. Put the pitted dates and raisins or sultanas in a food processor.
2. Quarter and core the apples (don’t peel) and chop them roughly.
3. Add the apples to the food processor along with the peeled and chopped onions.
4. Add brown or raw sugar, salt, pepper, cayenne and vinegar and process thoroughly till quite finely chopped and well mixed. (Alternatively, chop dates, raisins/sultanas, apples and onions finely together, then tip them into a bowl and stir in the sugar, salt, pepper, cayenne and vinegar.)
5. Spoon into clean, dry jars and label.
Note: The chutney is best when matured for a couple of weeks, and it will keep for several months.
Prep time: 10 minutes
Total time: 10 minutes
Yield: 2 4-ounce (100-gram) jars
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves, stripped off stalks
1 tablespoon winter savory leaves, stripped off stalks
10 sage leaves, torn
7 ounces (200 grams) sea salt (sel de Guérande or similar) or kosher salt
Put the thyme, savory and sage leaves in a food processor, add the salt and process till fine. It will turn a beautiful jade green color. This will fade after a week or two, but the flavor will remain hauntingly herby.
Pumpkin Seed and Parsley Pesto
Prep time: 10 minutes
Total time: 10 minutes
Yield: about 1 cup pesto
1 good bunch of flat-leaf parsley, leaves only (about 1 ounce, or 30 grams)
2 tablespoons hulled green pumpkin seeds
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan or Grana Padano
Pinch of salt
1 small clove garlic, mashed
6 tablespoons olive oil
1. Put parsley leaves, pumpkin seeds, cheese, salt and garlic in a blender.
2. Blend until well-chopped, stopping to scrape down every now and then — add a little water if necessary to make the blades turn.
3. Pour in the olive oil in a steady stream and continue blending till very smooth, scraping down if necessary.
4. Tip into a dish or jar and cover tightly.
5. The pesto will keep in the fridge, unopened, for up to a month. Once broached, cover with a thin layer of olive oil to exclude air.
Prep time: 25 minutes (plus 1 hour to refrigerate the dough and 1 hour to allow the Brunsli to dry out before baking).
Cook time: 5 minutes
Total time: 2 hours 30 minutes
Yield: Makes 20 to 30, depending on size
4 ounces (100 grams) dark chocolate, (Lindt Excellence, for example)
5 ounces (150 grams) sugar, plus extra for rolling out dough
8 ounces (250 grams) ground almonds
2 tablespoons flour
2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 egg whites
Pinch of salt
2 tablespoons Kirsch
1. Melt the chocolate in a bowl set over a pan of simmering water (or microwave for 1 to 2 minutes). Stir till smooth, then set aside till cooled but still melted.
2. Mix together in a large bowl the sugar, ground almonds, flour, cocoa powder and cinnamon.
3. Beat the egg whites in a bowl with a pinch of salt till snowy but still creamy — don’t overbeat or they will be hard to incorporate smoothly.
4. Fold the egg whites into the dry ingredients.
5. Stir in the cooled, melted chocolate and Kirsch and press the mixture together to form a firm dough. (It’s a good idea to use latex gloves because the dough is very sticky.)
6. Refrigerate the dough for 1 hour.
7. Sprinkle a working surface with sugar (do not use flour) and roll or pat out the dough to about half an inch (1 centimeter) thick.
8. Cut into shapes with cookie cutters (hearts, Christmas trees, half-moons etc.) and lay them on a baking sheet lined with non-stick baking parchment. Recycle any trimmings and cut out more shapes.
9. Leave the unbaked Brunsli at room temperature for 1 hour to dry out a little, otherwise they fall apart when baked.
10. Heat the oven to 475 degrees F (240 degrees C) and bake Brunsli for 5 minutes — they will turn a shade paler and start to dry out a bit around the edges, but should remain moist in the middle.
11. Remove Brunsli from the oven and let cool on a rack.
12. Once cool, pack in cellophane bags and tie with pretty ribbons, or store in an airtight tin.
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cook time: 15 minutes
Total time: 20 minutes, plus 2 to 3 weeks’ maturing
Yield: Makes 4 preserved lemons.
4 lemons, untreated
4 ounces (100 grams) salt
5 ounces (150 grams) sugar
2 cups (1/2 liter) water
3 to 4 sprigs of fresh thyme
1. Put the lemons in a saucepan, cover with cold water and bring the water to a boil.
2. When the water boils, tip it away; repeat the process twice more.
3. Press the drained lemons firmly into a Mason or Kilner glass jar.
4. In the same pan, dissolve the salt and sugar in 2 cups of water and pour it (hot) over the lemons.
5. Push the thyme down into the liquid.
6. Snap the lid shut while the lemons are still hot.
7. Cool, refrigerate for 2 to 4 weeks before using (or bestowing on favored friends). The lemons will keep for several months.
Main image: An herbed salt. Credit: Sue Style