Monday, 10 December 2012

A homemade Christmas

I’ve been making homemade gifts and cards for as long as I can remember. As a child, I would make cards, as a teen I’d bake cookies, and as an adult I make anything I can think of. I have an ex who says it looks as if I’m cheap but I don’t see it that way – for a start, it can be more expensive to make things than to buy them! It’s certainly more time consuming, but it’s also a lot more personal. People can see you’ve put in the time and effort. It’s also fun, and I love that Jess can get involved too. I put on a Christmas CD, get out the craft stuff and suddenly it feels like Christmas.

For the last couple of years Jess and I have made chocolates and sweets to give to our friends. They usually end up a bit misshapen (it’s Jess’s job to put the chocolate in the moulds) but they taste terrific. Last year we made:
White chocolate with strawberries (melt white chocolate and mix in dried strawberries)
Dark chocolate orange (melted dark chocolate with grated orange peel and juice)
Nutty milk chocolate (milk chocolate mixed with chopped nuts)
Peppermint creams (icing sugar, peppermint essence and green food colouring)
Nutty fudge

I use silicone chocolate moulds that I bought at a poundshop (easy to get the chocolate out), and places like Lakeland and specialist cooking stores do some beautiful moulds, but if you want to try and make some cheaply before investing in moulds, you can use the plastic tray from a box of chocolates or a small ice-cube tray.

The better quality the chocolate, the better the finished product. I am usually trying to keep it cheap so I tend to use store-brand which works just fine, but if you can afford good quality chocolate then it is worth it. And please don’t use ‘cooking chocolate’ unless you want the lot to end up in the bin!

Once they are made and set, I either pack a selection in a pretty box or just pile them up on cellophane sheets and tie the top with ribbon. You can get proper sweet bags if you are so inclined but I think the cellophane sheets work just as well and are often prettier.

We also made salt dough decorations which came out surprisingly well and which Jess had great fun making. There are lots of different recipes for salt dough, just google it.

One word of caution: there are also a number of methods online that talk about drying your salt dough in the microwave. Being the impatient sort that I am, I gave it a try. The mixture bubbled and discoloured, and we ended up starting again. Stick to the oven, it gives a much better result. However it also took much longer to bake than all the recipes suggested; we seemed to have them in the oven for the whole day! The results were lovely though. I set Jess loose on them with glitter pens and fake jewels (from the poundshop), and they came out so well that we ended up giving several as presents.

Last year Jess and I made Christmas tree cards. She decorated several pieces of card with paint and glitter, then I cut out Christmas tree shapes from it once it had dried. She stuck the shapes on the cards, added a few stickers, and voila. We’ve also made cards using a potato cut into a Christmas tree shape as a stamp and sprinkling glitter on while the paint is wet. I’m looking at different ideas for this year. Several friends made reindeer cards using their children’s handprints which seemed to come out well so we may go down that route, although I’m also thinking of wrapping paper oddments to make collages of presents.

This year I’m making Christmas hampers for most of my family, boxes or baskets filled with homemade Christmas themed treats. I’m starting early because many of the things I’m planning to make are nicest if they have time to develop; I’m also going to need so many jars that I’ll be collecting for quite a while!

I’m planning to make pot pourri which is something I make for my own home every Christmas although I’ve never made it for gifts before. I’m planning cookie mix jars (glass jars with layers of cookie ingredients and a tag with instructions, e.g. mix with one egg and cook for 20 minutes), cranberry and orange vodka, apple and cranberry chutney, stem ginger in syrup, smoky paprika peppers, apricot and stilton pots, candied ginger, caramel lollies, spiced syrup, flavoured sugar, and anything else I fancy along the way! I’ll add a few cookies and some fudge and hopefully it’ll turn out to be the perfect present for a variety of friends and family. Not only will they be fun to make, but my family will thoroughly enjoy the tasting sessions that will need to take place!

For pot pourri, the earlier you can start collecting ingredients the better. Pick up bits and pieces as you see them, take them home and put on kitchen paper to dry out for a few days. Most of the ingredients are free and you can use any combination of things. So far I’ve been collecting moss-covered twigs, holly leaves, red berries, rosehips, pinecones, lemon and orange peel, pieces of moss and bits of bark, red flowers and red flower petals, any interesting leaves, nuts and nut shells (acorns, hickory etc.), sprigs of herbs and anything else that I think looks nice. I usually add odd bits of tinsel, ribbon or glitter to mine but you can of course go for an all-natural look if you prefer.

Cut or tear your larger items up if necessary, and add some cinnamon sticks, a couple of bay leaves and some whole cloves if you have them. If you want a proper scent rather than just something that looks nice with a delicate smell, try adding a few drops of sweet-smelling fragrance oils – cinnamon, clove and orange oils are a good bet. You can add fixative if you want the fragrance to last longer. If you want a quick version try using holly leaves, cinnamon sticks, dried orange slices (you can dry them in the microwave), tinsel and a couple of Christmas baubles. Even without the oils, the scent should last well into Christmas and the mix looks gorgeous in a decorative bowl.

I also read a tip about putting a scoop of the mix into a pan of water and heating it on the stove to produce a real Christmas scent that permeates the house. I haven’t tried it yet but will do at some point – I’ll check the oils aren’t flammable first though!

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