I'll Be Home(made) for Christmas

Wednesday, December 22, 2010 27 comments
Saltine Toffees
Not so long ago, I looked for the most vivid sights and cheeriest sounds of Christmas in the shopping mall: colorful merchandise displayed in store windows, the swish of a credit card followed by the beep-boop-boop of the cash register and the crackling of shopping bags as they're jostled in the crush of holiday gift-hunters. No virtual shopping for me: I preferred being in the climate-controlled coliseums of consumerism, plunging headlong into the herd of shoppers, purse slung over my shoulder and sharp elbows at the ready. Think the running of the bulls in Pamplona is crazy? Try Christmas Eve shopping at the Mall of America. Buying gifts was nothing less than a thrill . . . until it wasn't anymore.

Well before the recent economic recession, crappy housing market and a self-funded relocation across the globe whittled our Yuletide budget to less than zero, I had begun to feel anxious about Christmas gift-buying. As the list of giftees continued to grow each year, so did my worries: Will she like this? Is that what he wanted? Did I spend too much? Or too little? I fretted over not putting enough thought into picking one present, then fussed about overthinking the choice of another. Most of all, I wondered: what am I actually giving my family and friends?

Can't Buy Me Love?

We give gifts throughout the year, whether or not there is a specific occasion. Our generosity is often by choice but we are also spurred by cultural traditions and social obligations, and for reasons varying from affection to reciprocity to entirely self-serving motives. With each presentation, there is a message: Thinking of you. Thank you. I love you. I owe you. You owe me... The message, like the gift, is personal and yet, it can also project beyond its giver and receiver, and signal outwardly to others an image of the lives of and relationship between the main participants. This is not lost on marketers and advertisers, who fill airwaves and glossy pages with ad campaigns depicting rapturously happy people exchanging luxurious presents, in hopes that viewers might be persuaded to emulate them through their purchases. At the very least, they have succeeded in convincing many people (myself included) that the highest value gifts can only be found in the marketplace.

That's not the Star of Bethlehem guiding the most famous gift-giver of all
What's wrong with that? Only that I sometimes feel as if I am not giving a gift so much as I am simply a conduit for these marketers, who slyly 'suggest' that the best way to show we care is with their products. One past commercial offered up diamonds as a way to "say everything without saying a word." Yet what is more expressive than the straightforward words 'I love you' and costs nothing to boot? Another recent advertisement for a car company dismisses simple gifts, scolding "Let's be honest - no one ever wished for a smaller holiday gift". Well, doesn't that make me feel like a thoughtless, tightfisted Scrooge for not parking a cherry red sports car in the living room for my husband...

Perhaps it is the height of selfishness, but I hope that there is something of me in the presents I give, whether it is store-bought or hand-made. I would like my gifts to reflect a value that I share with others, not one that is assigned by retailers and advertisers. For the past few years, I have been making items - knitted hats and scarves, homebaked treats - to give as presents on holidays and special occasions, and I continue to do so this Christmas. These gifts are tangible, to be enjoyed by taste or by feel, but they also hold intangible wishes for even more cherished things that I hope we all receive in abundance. With just three days left before Christmas, I'd like to share some of these gifts within gifts with you.

Not Quite Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh . . .

Upending the adage that it is better to give than to receive, I was fortunate to have received in order to give! Thanks to fellow food bloggers who shared favorite holiday recipes, I found sweet little ways to hold some big gift wishes for us all this Christmas.

The Gift of Time

There never seems to be enough of it during the holidays, but these Saltine Toffees should help. With just four basic ingredients, they are a snap to make, leaving you time to read Christmas cards, watch a classic Yuletide movie or just put up your feet and relax. When they're ready, I guarantee that you'll find the time to indulge in their sweetness. But be warned: this combination of crisp crackers, buttery toffee and rich chocolate is so addictive, it's also known as Christmas Crack. And it just might stop the clock altogether.

For the complete recipe, please visit Chef Dennis at More Than a Mount Full, where he chronicles his adventures as the chef and director of dining services at an all-girls Catholic high school. With such a tough crowd to please, you know his recipes are not to be missed!

Also known as Christmas Crack for its addictiveness
The Gift of Knowledge

Data, facts, information, wisdom, common sense, learning, experience . . . no matter what it's called, knowledge is infinite and priceless. We can know so much and still not know everything, but the more knowledge we gain, the more we can share. Now that's a gift that keeps on giving! I learned about these confections, known as Les Quatres Mendiants au Chocolat, from writer and historian Cynthia Bertelsen, who shares her extensive knowledge of food history and culture at Gherkins & Tomatoes. Knowing the rich story behind its origins turns these treats of chocolate, dried fruit and nuts from simple candy into a taste of history. For the complete recipe and origins of Les Quatres Mendiants, please visit Cynthia's blog for an all-you-can-learn buffet!

Les Quatres Mendiants au Chocolat

The Gift of Carefree Moments

Having a roadmap is often the only difference between staying on track and driving off the cliff. But once in a while, stepping off the beaten path can lead to something new and fun. For instance, I started to worry about having enough goodies to give away, so I planned to make a large batch of cookies. I had a recipe printed out and all the ingredients on hand when I spotted a can of sweetened condensed milk, some uraro (arrowroot) biscuits and a bottle of rum . . . When the cocoa dust finally settled, the cookies had turned into these soft and crunchy rummy-fudgy bites. With just that bit of spontaneity, what was in danger of becoming a chore became an instance of fun. It's not a monthlong vacation on the beach, but such small carefree moments can be more than enough to revive your energy and spirit. So, for those inevitable days in the New Year when worries start to weigh you down, rip up the recipe and dump everything into the bowl. You never know what sweet surprise might come together.

Chocolate Thingamabobs

This is the treat with no name, borne of a spontaneous amalgam of hazelnut chocolate spread, sweetened condensed milk, biscuit bits, nuts and rum. Though it requires some time in the refrigerator and a food processor would help, there's no need to turn on the mixer, stove or oven. You can even make it your own by sticking to the basic idea but changing up the specific ingredients. It's a carefree Christmas confection . . .


1 1/2 cups uraro biscuits, crushed finely (or any other biscuit/cookie: vanilla wafers, graham crackers, etc.)
1 cup walnuts or nut of your choice, coarsley chopped into small pieces
1/2 cup hazelnut chocolate spread (such as Nutella)
1/2 cup sweetened condensed milk
1 Tbsp butter, melted
1 tsp brown sugar
2 oz rum
Cocoa powder

To make:

In a small bowl, thoroughly combine biscuits, nuts, chocolate spread and condensed milk. Separately, stir butter, sugar and rum together, then add to the biscuit mixture and stir to incorporate. Resulting mixture should have the consistency of a soft cookie dough. Refrigerate for at least one hour or until dough is firm. Form spoonfuls (however much you prefer) into balls and roll in cocoa powder*. Refrigerate to set.

*For my next batch, I plan to dip them in chocolate to make simple truffles.

Wishing you a joyous, wondrous and meaningful Christmas!

Stars of wonder, stars of light
Parols (Christmas lanterns) adorn a garden


  • walk2write said...

    Hello and Merry Christmas from Florida! I have to admit that I had thought about not making any candy at all this Christmas, but you may have changed my mind. One look at the yummy recipes, and now I'm off to buy some Nutella and rum.

  • Trissa said...

    Well said. I'll be the first to admit that Christmas is becoming so commercialized, and maybe I'm also partly to blame for that... this is a great post - a good reminder about what this season is all about!

    Happy Holidays to you and your family!

  • Unknown said...

    My mum and I were just talking about this today - especially those car commercials. I mean really - how far have we gotten from the original intent of the holidays (and by that I mean all the various winter holidays - none of which are about commercialism and spending the most on gifts!).

    I, too, like to give homemade treats - and love to receive them, too. Honestly, it's sometimes more special to have something made just for me.

    I've done my holiday candy making and baking already this year, but I'm booking marking these recipes for next. Thanks for sharing - and Happy Holidays!

  • emiglia said...

    I really appreciated reading your comments about this time of year... I hope that other people try to put some of themselves in their gifts as well. My gifts this year may be less expensive than things I have purchased in the past, but I tried to put thought into them, and hopefully that is what counts!

    Happy holidays!

  • Lori said...

    I'm at a point where I really wish more value were put on the homemade. Maybe it comes with age. People seem not to want too many baked goods, or too many sweets in the house, but will gladly take a commercial/material gift. Oh well, lots of them are getting baked goods and canned goods from me! :)

    Yours are beautiful! I had a coworker who used to make that saltine toffee - awesome! Is that fig in those chocolates? I've got to try the thingamabobs too!
    Merry Christmas and best wishes for new adventures and opportunities in your new home!

  • Mardi Michels said...

    Some lovely treats for the holidays there - LOVE the idea of saltine toffee :-) merry Christmas to the two of you and looking forward to reading about your food adventures in 2011! xoxo

  • Midge said...

    It's great to know that I'm not the only one who believes that gifts made with one's hands and given from the heart are better than any bought from a store! Happy Holidays!

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    Hope you all had a lovely holiday and many thanks for taking the time to comment!

    Vanillasugar - Thingamabobs are only fractionally creative compared to the out-of-this-world confections you've been recently putting out there! 8-)

    Momgateway - So sorry for the late reply: uraro biscuits are made with arrowroot flour. Similar cookies from South America are made with tapioca or cornstarch flours, and are a delicious gluten-free alternative to wheat-flour based treats.

    walkt2write - I hope you did change your mind and made some Christmas candy! I am going to make another batch of thingamabobs and this time, I'm going to dip them in chocolate rather than just powder. 8-)

    WizzyTheStick - Hello! Thank you so much - I think a lot of people feel that same as we do. I enjoy shopping as much as the next person, but something is lost when it feels like the be-all, end-all activity of such a special season. 8-)

    Elspeth - Thank you! [I have to admit indulging in these treats I made - had to test them first to make sure they were good enough to give, right?] 8-)

    Trissa - Many thanks! I am so annoyed with my home Internet service right now: for some reason, it will not bring up your site. I'm working on it because I know from your tweets that I am missing so many of your delicious posts...! 8-(

    ValleyWriter - I know! The car commercials were truly the catalyst for me to reconsider my shopping/gifting ways. How do I compete with that kind of image? Hope you had a happy holiday season, too, filled with lots and lots of homemade treats! 8-D

    5 Star Foodie - Thank you and here's hoping you had a most delightful and joyous holidays with your family!

    Kat - Hope you've dug out from all that snow! But if you've been making your special spiced hot cocoa and baking up a storm of your own, I'm sure that being snowbound isn't such a bad thing! ;-)

    Emiglia - Thank you so much! Although my gifts do not have much monetary value, I do hope that they reflect a close connection between me and my loved ones. I hope you had a wonderful holiday! 8-)

    Penny - Yay for edible gifts! Hope you also had a most Merry Christmas! 8-)

    Lori - I have always loved receiving homemade gifts and now thoroughly enjoy giving them myself! The husband just inhaled the toffees and I've promised to make more even after the holidays. Thank you so much for you good wishes for our new home and I look forward to sharing our adventures. 8-)

    Mardi - I hope you had a fantastic time in Mexico! I've been following your tweets and can't wait to read all about it. 8-)

    Annapet - Maligayang Paska (late)! I do hope you will have an opportunity to celebrate a truly Filipino Christmas in the near future. When you do, I hope you'll let me know so that we can meet up! 8-)

    Midge - Thank you! We are not alone in this belief in the special value of homemade gifts. 8-) Wishing you continued joyous holiday celebrations and a Happy New Year!

  • walk2write said...

    I did make your Chocolate Thingamabobs and the Saltine candy. Both were big hits with the family, and my son asked for the recipes. I will try your recipe dipped in chocolate next time I make them. Thanks again for providing the impetus.

  • Jenn said...

    Oh how I miss having Christmas in the Philippines.

    I remember walking it MOA. It's overwhelming. I thought Megamall was big. hahaha...

    Hop eyou had a good Christmas.

  • OysterCulture said...

    Glad to hear the two of you are starting to settle in. We miss you in the States and Thanksgiving of course was just not the same.

    Cynthia Bertelsen of Gherkins & Tomatoes is an outstanding writer and her blog is always tremendously informative. I've followed her almost since I started blogging.

  • Chef E said...

    Glad your holiday was a good one- and these treats are sending me scavenging through my pantry! I made salted caramel for the first time while in Texas, and have a great appreciation for those like you who make treats more often!

    Happy New Year Tangle!

  • Daily Spud said...

    A much belated Merry Christmas and Happy New Year TN! I am as prone as anyone to be deluded by marketing guff but it's good to be reminded of all the things that a homemade gift can say. That and I need to find some saltine crackers, pronto!

  • Jenni said...

    Lovely, TN! And I so agree with you. The Beloved and I give to a charity in honor of our friends and family. Much less hassle, and no worries of regifting that hideous fuschia scarf!

    I also made my spiced popcorn to give out--went over very well. Digging those thingamabobs, though--anything w/Nutella in it is A-OK with me!


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