Christmas Food Gifts
Life's little luxuries, indulgences that one wouldn't normally buy for one's self, are what presents should be about. In this regard, food makes an exceptional gift. For little more than the cost of several pairs of socks or stockings (so mundane!) or useless trifles that only take up storage space until the next garage sale, you can give dear friends and loved ones edible luxuries, many of which can be enjoyed long after the festivities.
Affordable edible luxuries
Specialty food stores are veritable Aladdin's caves of indulgent food gifts. Foie gras, marron glacés (candied chestnuts), mustard fruits, truffle- or porcini-flavoured olive oils are not exactly regular shopping list items. Nor are rich, complex premium balsamic vinegars with acidity and sweetness so well-balanced one could drink them (and they do in Italy). A beautifully packaged panettone will always be greeted with pleasure.
Candied fruits are the food equivalent of jewellery: little cellophane bags filled with glistening baubles of candied whole clementines and baby oranges, figs, white pumpkin, quinces and apricots, and tied with swirls of gold ribbons, look good enough to hang off the Christmas tree.
An over-the-top extravagance would be truffles - not the chocolate confection but the fungus. The renowned black truffle (Tuber melanosporum) from Perigord, France and the equally celebrated white truffle (T. Magnatum) from Alba, Italy are available at this time of year. Just one of these is enough to make a pretty big dint in the budget. If you are lucky, you might get to partake in this present as well! And for the person who has everything, why not throw in a truffle slicer?
Add your personal touch
But let's come back down to earth! The effects of the GFC (Global Financial Crisis) are still lingering for many. Homemade food gifts can be just as wonderful as store-bought stuff and much kinder on the budget. They also carry that very special personal touch that money can't buy.
Make chocolate-coated candied orange peel or fruitcake balls extra special with fabulous premium chocolates such as those from the Valrhona Grand Cru range. To make chocolate-coated fruitcake balls, whizz chopped-up moist dark fruitcake in a food processor until it almost forms a ball. Roll into medium-sized marbles and chill on greaseproof paper-lined trays for about 30 minutes. Melt chocolate over a bowl set over barely simmering water. Balancing the balls, one at a time, on a fork, dip them into the melted chocolate. Allow the excess to drip off and transfer them to paper-lined trays. Chill until the chocolate has hardened. You could also make them look like tiny Christmas puddings by decorating them with a little icing or marzipan for snow, tiny "leaves" of candied angelica leaves and "holly berries" of maraschino cherries pieces.
The myriad keeping cakes of Italy such as melatello, panpepato and panforte - varieties of which range from bianco to margherita - are available commercially but equally easy to make.
But thinking ahead to next Christmas, you might want to try making certosino, the spiced Christmas cake of Bologna. Redolent with chocolate, honey, candied peels and spices, and a soft crunch of toasted almonds and pine nuts, it has proved hugely popular with friends since I started making it several years ago. Look up Lynne Rossetto Kasper's The Splendid Table for the recipe. Certosino has to wonderful way of showcasing a honey's character but to my mind it works best with the dark honeys rather than the light floral ones. Try it with chestnut honey or dark eucalypt honeys such as Ironbark. It should be made at least a month before being given (you can safely assume that it will be eaten straight away!) to allow the flavours to mature and meld together, and for the texture to soften to a pleasurable chewy consistency. Wrapped tightly, it keeps for months.
Almond bread biscuits are universally popular and very easy to make. The addition of gleaming golden candied orange peel bits adds a festive touch as well as a gorgeous complex citrus flavour that marries so well with almonds. Alternatively, you could use dried sour cherries for a touch of Christmas red. They are also excellent companion for almonds.
Candied Orange Peel & Almond Bread Biscuits
270 g egg whites (this is roughly equivalent to 9 egg whites from size 60 g eggs*)
270 g caster sugar
270 g plain flour
270 g unblanched almonds (ie with skins on)
270 g candied orange peel, chopped into small dice
Toss diced peel with about 5 heaped tablespoons of the flour, breaking up any large clumps of peel. Whisk egg whites until they hold soft peaks. Add sugar gradually, beating all the time, until the mixture is shiny and holds stiff peaks. Fold in the flour, almonds and peel.
Spoon mixture into a parchment-lined rectangular loaf tin (30 cm long x 7.5 cm wide x 7 cm deep) or several small loaf tins. Bake in a preheated 180ºC oven for about 1 hour or until a skewer comes out clean. The loaf should only barely colour - reduce oven temperature if it starts to brown.
Leave to cool in the tin for about 5 minutes. Take the loaf out of the tin, peel off the paper and allow it to cool completely on a wire rack. When completely cold, wrap tightly in cling film and chill overnight in the refrigerator overnight.
The next day, cut the loaf into slices no more than 2mm thick using a sharp serrated knife. The trick to such fine slicing is to keep your wrist loose and rely strictly on the sawing action to do the slicing for you. Do not exert force. Rinse and dry your knife from time to time: sugar from the peel will accumulate on the blade and make it difficult to slice.
Spread the slices in a single layer on baking sheets. Bake for about 40 minutes in a 100ºC oven. Leave the door slightly ajar to allow steam to escape. Turn the slices over after about 20 minutes. Do not allow them to colour to more than the palest gold. (If they start to colour before being completely dry, lower the oven temperature.)
When the slices are dried and crisp, remove them from the oven and allow them to cool on wire racks. When cold, store in an airtight tin or pack into cellophane bags and tie the bags very tightly with ribbons.
*Use the yolks to make custard, ice-cream or any of the yolk-emulsion sauces such as mayonnaise, hollandaise or aioli, for your Christmas feast. The yolks can be kept for several days in the refrigerator, provided you add a few tablespoons of water or an extra whole egg to provide a moisture coat for the yolks. Cover with cling film pressed right up against the yolks to exclude any air.