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Edible Christmas Gifts Put Indulgence Under The Tree

Danish Kringle pastries. Credit: Barbara Haber

Danish Kringle pastries. Credit: Barbara Haber

Coming up with Christmas presents that people really want is a challenge that confronted me every year until I wised-up and limited my gift-buying to delectable edibles.

In the old days this meant telephoning food companies and placing orders to be delivered to recipients, but I had to know what companies to call. These days, the Internet has become a veritable shopping assistant or scout. I only have to name a food and sources pop up, and I can purchase many gifts with the flick of a finger. No pushing through crowded stores for me. And on Black Friday, that infamous post-Thanksgiving Christmas-shopping day for bargain hunters, I stay at home nibbling on leftovers.

In thinking about what to buy, I seek out novel products, that is, items not likely to be found in the usual stores. Inevitably, I am led back to my Wisconsin roots where certain local specialties hold great appeal.

Cheese castle goodies

A favorite store with online shopping services is Mars Cheese Castle, located in Kenosha, Wis., midway between Milwaukee and Chicago. This place has local cheeses, phenomenal hams and sausages, and wonderful bakery products, all available online. My favorites are their Baby Swiss cheese, Usinger’s bratwurst and summer sausages, and an applewood smoked ham I often crave.

Cheese bags from Mars Cheese Castle. Credit: Barbara Haber

Cheese bags from Mars Cheese Castle. Credit: Barbara Haber

As for baked products, Mars is famous for cheese bread the company says is baked with a quarter-pound of extra-sharp Wisconsin cheddar in every loaf. And I always order Kringles, a Danish pastry I find only in Wisconsin that has various fillings of apples, cherries or blueberries, and also pecans or cheese. My only problem in ordering a supply of Christmas gifts from this place is that I must fight the urge to keep and eat everything myself.

On a visit to Mars Cheese Castle last summer, I was browsing along aisles of knickknacks when I stumbled across a shelf with plain boxes labeled “cheese storage bags.” Manufactured in France, the boxes contain 15 bags that simulate the environment of a cheese cave, thus preventing cheese from suffocating and molding, which is its fate when wrapped tightly in plastic wrap. I bought a box and, sure enough, these bags do what they promise. I have become a zealot on their behalf. They are a perfect gift for cheese lovers, and I was thrilled to find sources online. I now have a stack of them I hand out as hostess gifts, and will give them at Christmas when I need the perfect small gift for a worthy recipient.

Custom candy Christmas gifts

But items that relate to Wisconsin are not the only desirable gifts I find online. I have a friend who collects hot sauces with funny, often rude, names and I am always on a mission to find new ones. The best one so far is called Scorned Woman, which arrived in a slinky black velvet sheath. Others are Slap Ya Mama, Mad Dog, Bee Sting, and one called Pain Is Good with a label showing a man screaming in agony. My friend lines up her collection in her kitchen as a conversation piece, and I will be sorry when she runs out of space.

See's Candies. Credit: Barbara Haber

See’s Candies. Credit: Barbara Haber

Another standby gift for the sweet lovers on my gift list is candy from See’s, a luscious West Coast chain of shops that do not exist east of the Mississippi except for pop-up stores that show up just before Christmas. But these places only have ready-packed assortments, not offering the luxury of handpicked pieces available in the stores or online.

People have their favorites, and these vary as widely as the scores of different chocolates created by See’s. To receive a gift of hand-selected chocolates from a friend who knows what you like, it seems to me, is quite wonderful. I would add that See’s candy is owned by Warren Buffet, who always knows a good thing when he sees it, and if this candy is good enough for him, well, say no more.

And on the subject of candy I cannot help but refer back to Wisconsin where I can buy a product known locally as Fairy Food, but also goes under the more prosaic name of Molasses Sponge candy. Fragile, melt-in-the mouth squares of delicately flavored molasses crunch are enrobed in exquisite and thick coatings of milk or dark chocolate.

My source for this is a shop called Buddy Squirrel that has been in the vicinity of Milwaukee for almost 100 years. I suppose it got its name because the store is famous for its roasted nuts, but it’s the Fairy Food that sends me there. I should hasten to add that knock-offs of this candy made with cheap ingredients are around and to be avoided. Go for the real thing or nothing at all.

A season for indulgence

The fun of buying food gifts for friends and family is that you can offer cheerful indulgences that people generally do not buy for themselves. This is why I don’t order those boxes of apples or pears that are popular and routine Christmas gifts. To me, that would be the equivalent of handing out socks or neckties, gifts that seldom bring joy to the faces of their recipients.

Cheese bags from Mars Cheese Castle. Credit: Barbara Haber

Zester Daily contributor Barbara Haber is an author, food historian and the former curator of books at Radcliffe's Schlesinger Library at Harvard University. She is a former director of the International Association of Culinary Professionals, was elected to the James Beard Foundation's "Who's Who of Food and Beverage" and received the M.F.K. Fisher Award from Les Dames d'Escoffier.

  • Beverly Frriend 12·14·13

    What great information from your innovative, always interesting correspondent. I am revising my gift list..

  • Nancy Zaslavsky 12·17·13

    Two of L.A.’s blessings are its weather and See’s, but now you have my mouth watering for Fairy Food.