Few things are as appreciated during the holidays as the personal touch of thoughtful and delicious homemade gifts. What could better express the sentiment of the season?
Cookies are the classic item to make and share and they are always a wonderful choice, but they are gone or past their prime all too soon. It is particularly nice to give a gift that can be enjoyed immediately for holiday entertaining or utilized for weeks, or perhaps even months, giving your loved ones a continued reminder of your holiday wishes.
Handmade truffles or jams and preserves are always welcome and easy to make, but consider some less obvious choices. For your friends who enjoy their own puttering in the kitchen, try offering your own signature infused vinegars, vodkas or tea and spice blends along with a recipe or two for suggested uses. Tea and fruit simple syrups can be beautifully packaged along with your favorite recipes utilizing them. Decorative jars of various tea salts can be enjoyed throughout the year. Or try our tea-spiced pecans bagged for giving or as a special component to handmade caramel corn.
Decorative bottles, boxes and tins can be found in home stores, local craft shops and even thrift shops. They can be simply to hold the products or a gift in themselves. I’m particularly fond of the bamboo saltbox shown filled with a tea and spice rub. That box alone would make a lovely small gift, but becomes all the more special with a handmade treat within. Some tissue paper and ribbons can turn less decorative containers into something special. If you start early enough you can save interesting and attractive bottles and soak off their labels for use during the holidays. For stubborn labels, consider purchasing a bottle of adhesive release at any hardware or hobby store.
Tea Spiced Pecans
This is a variation on a recipe from Chef Laurie Bell of Great Falls Tea Garden in Virginia. The addictive smoky-earthy-salty-sweet taste of these nuts make them ideal for gifting or nibbling on straight, or as a very special component in the caramel corn recipe that follows. The smokiness comes largely from the use of Lapsong Souchong tea, but your favorite black tea can be substituted if you desire a less smoky result. If you don’t have a handy supply of tea smoked (or other smoked) salt, simply substitute straight sea salt or kosher salt. If 5-Spice powder is not available, substitute a blend of anise, cinnamon and clove.
Yield: 8 cups
- 2 tablespoons loose leaf Lapsong Souchong tea leaves
- 6 tablespoons granulated sugar
- 3/4 teaspoons tea smoked salt
- 1/2 teaspoons Chinese Five spice powder
- 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 1/4 teaspoons ground ginger
- 1 egg white
- 1 tablespoon water
- 1 pound pecan halves
Finely grind the tea leaves in a spice grinder. They should yield a little over 1 tablespoon of ground tea. In a small bowl combine the tea leaves, sugar and spices and stir to combine well.
In a large bowl, whisk the egg white until frothy. Add the water and whisk again. Add the tea/spice blend to the egg mixture and whisk well to combine. Allow to sit for 15 minutes for the sugar to dissolve.
In the meantime, preheat the oven to 300 degrees and line a sheet pan with parchment paper. After 15 minutes, whisk briefly and stir in the pecans. Stir to coat evenly with the mixture and turn out onto the prepared sheet pan. Spread pecans to be evenly distributed.
Place into the preheated oven and immediately turn the temperature down to 250. Bake for 45 to 60 minutes, rotating the pan after 20 to 30 minutes. Test the nuts after 45 minutes by removing a few nuts and letting them cool for 3 to 4 minutes. If they are crisp, remove the pan from the oven and let the pecans cool completely in the pan. If they are not yet crisp, test every 5 minutes until done. Store in an airtight container at room temperature.
Caramel Corn with Tea Spiced Pecans
This is a wonderful vehicle for the Tea Spiced Pecans contrasting between the buttery sweetness of the popcorn and the spicy earthiness of the pecans.
Yield: 8 quarts
- 7 quarts of popped popcorn
- 2 cups brown sugar
- 1 cup corn syrup
- 1 cup butter
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 teaspoon bourbon or vanilla
- 2 cups Tea Spiced Pecans
Preheat oven to 250 degrees. Spray two large shallow roasting pans with cooking spray. Add popcorn and place in the oven.
Meanwhile, place brown sugar, corn syrup, butter and salt in a heavy saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring constantly, particularly stirring down the sides. Continue to boil for 5 minutes, stirring slowly. Remove from the heat and stir in the baking soda and bourbon, mix well.
Remove the pans of warm popcorn from the oven and pour the hot caramel over them. Stir to coat as evenly as possible, but don’t worry if it is not completely even as you will be able to even it up as you stir during the baking process.
Return to the oven and bake for 15 minutes. After 15 minutes, sprinkle in the pecans and stir the popcorn well. Return to the oven and stir every 15 minutes for a total of 60 minutes of baking time. Remove and turn out onto foil that has been sprayed with cooking spray first. Let cool completely. Break apart and store in an airtight container.
Alice Medrich, author of several award winning cookbooks and a noted pastry chef and chocolatier, developed the unique approach of using water instead of cream in her truffles. That water just screamed to be turned into tea! There are endless possibilities for handmade truffles to make and share. I chose this one as it is very quick and easy yet delicious, and takes beautifully to subtle variations. The Keemun tea used in this recipe helps bring out a natural depth and fruitiness to the chocolate without coming across as ‘flavored’. Your favorite full-bodied black tea can be substituted with equally wonderful results.
Yield: about 4 dozen truffles
- 5 teaspoons loose leaf Keemun or other full-bodied black tea leaves
- 1 cup boiling water
- 2 egg yolks
- 8 ounces milk chocolate, chopped
- 24 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped, separated
- 12 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 2 teaspoons Crème de Cassis or Cherry Herring liqueur (optional)
- dash of salt
Steep the tea leaves in the boiling water for 4 to 5 minutes. Meanwhile, whisk the yolks in a medium sized bowl. Strain a small amount of the tea into the yolks and whisk in. Gradually add in more strained hot tea until all is whisked in. Discard the leaves and set aside the yolk mixture.
Melt 8 ounces of milk chocolate and 8 ounces of bittersweet chocolate with the butter in a double boiler over barely steaming water, stirring frequently. When completely melted, remove from the heat and stir in the yolk mixture, salt, cinnamon and cayenne until just smooth. Stir in the optional liqueur. Cover and refrigerate for at least 3 hours and up to 5 days.
When ready to roll the truffles, remove from the refrigerator and allow to soften at room temperature for a few minutes. Scoop scant teaspoons of the truffle mixture and use your hands to roll into a smooth ball. Place on a parchment lined cookie sheet, and when filled, place in the refrigerator for 1 hour to firm up.
Melt the remaining 16 ounces of bittersweet chocolate in a double boiler over barely steaming water, stirring frequently. Place some of the melted chocolate in the palm of your hand and roll a truffle in the chocolate to coat. Roll in cocoa. Repeat until all truffles are completed. Alternatively you can dip the truffles into the melted chocolate and omit the cocoa.
For variations consider using Lapsong Souchong tea instead of Keemun and add the zest of an orange instead of the cinnamon. Substitute Grand Marnier or Cointreau for the Crème de Cassis. The classic tea truffle is, of course, Earl Grey tea. Here you would also use the orange zest and Grand Marnier.
Tea and Spice Rub
Finely ground tea blended with your own signature combination of spices can be very versatile and a real timesaver. Consider rubbing it on game hens or chicken the night before roasting or grilling. It can be added to braising liquids, chutneys, soups, or even try rolling a log of goat cheese and serving with dried fruit (perhaps even tea plumped dried fruit) for an instant hors d’oeuvre
Yield: 1.5 cups
- 12 tablespoons finely ground full-bodied black tea leaves
- 1/2 cup light brown sugar
- 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
- 2 teaspoons curry powder
- 1 teaspoon cumin powder
- 2 teaspoon coriander seed
- 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
- 1 teaspoon cayenne
- 1 teaspoon ground clove
- 1 teaspoon ground ginger
- 1 teaspoon ground mace
Freshly grind the tea and any of the other ingredients that did not come ground. Combine all ingredients in a medium bowl, mixing well until thoroughly combined. Store in a tightly sealed container at room temperature for up to 3 months.
Tea infused vinegar
Tea infused vinegar is incredibly easy to make and so useful in the pantry. Whether it is to make your vinaigrettes unique and special, to deglaze pans, to finish sauces or endless other uses, you will be amazed at how often you reach for your ‘signature’ vinegars. Choose your tea to compliment the base vinegar. The recipe below is for apple cider vinegar infused with Darjeeling tea, but consider other pairings such as rice vinegar with sencha, malt vinegar with Assam or red wine vinegar with Keemun. When gifting, always include a recipe to utilize your vinegar and get their creative juices flowing. The key to these vinegars is straining them well. If strained until crystal clear, they will keep for months.
The vinaigrette that follows is wonderful when served with baby greens, roasted fruit and blue cheese.
Apple Cider Vinegar with Darjeeling
Yield: 2 cups
- 2-1/4 cups apple cider vinegar
- 4 teaspoons loose leaf Darjeeling tea
In a saucepan, bring the vinegar to a boil over high heat. Add the tealeaves, stir and immediately remove from heat. Let steep until completely cool. Strain very well, ideally through cheesecloth or a coffee filter. Vinegar should be golden brown in color and crystal clear. If it is not clear, strain again. Transfer to a bottle and store at room temperature.
Yield 1.5 cups
- 5 cups Darjeeling infused apple cider vinegar
- 2 teaspoons honey
- 1 teaspoon minced shallot
- 1 garlic clove, minced (optional)
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh herbs, such as thyme, sage and/or tarragon
- 1/4 teaspoon sea salt, or more to taste
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper, or more to taste
- 1 cup vegetable oil
Place vinegar, honey, shallots, garlic, herbs, salt and pepper in a large bowl and whisk well. Drizzle in oil while continuing to whisk. Use immediately, or store, refrigerated, in an airtight container for up to 5 days.