Forget about hitting the malls in search of holiday gifts for teachers, bus drivers, friends and family. Bake something upscale this year and do it on a dime.
Celeb chef Susannah Locketti is an expert on cheap and chic -- and can help you create personal holiday gifts. In this economy, those around you will be grateful for some homemade gourmet goodies over a store bought gift any day.
Be a Nutcracker
Shelled nuts are a fortune these days. I saw a modest bag of shelled walnuts for nearly seven dollars! I buy the walnuts in the shell for about $3.79 and put the kids to work cracking them open. I had a ball with my kids the other night cracking open four bags of nuts. It's not difficult at all and took us only an hour or so. Pop in some holiday music and make a night out of it. One large bag of walnuts in the shell yields about two cups of shelled walnut meat. After they are shelled, I toast them in the oven at 350 on an ungreased cookie sheet until they brown up. Toasting enhances the flavor of the nut and will make for a more sophisticated flavor.
Research & Raid
Look for recipes while you raid the kitchen for any ingredients you already have on hand. There is nothing worse than having to buy everything from scratch. See what you have for sugars, flours, oats, nuts, dried fruits and any chocolate. Don't overlook recipes on the backs of these products either. I got the best reviews last week on an oatmeal chocolate bar recipe I pulled from the lid of the oat container. My husband is still asking for them.
Quality not Quantity
Very often, we get this mindset around the holidays that we have to give a lot in order for the gift to be a good one. Not so with baking. I make about six different types of cookies each year and put one of each in a cute little box, bag or container and send it along with a heartfelt note. Baked goods enjoyed in moderation allow you to appreciate them. Paring down the amount you give each person also allows you to spread the wealth to others and increase your gift giving list. My only exceptions to this rule are edible gifts for a larger family, an organization or your local fire or police department. (by the way ... I was told by a firefighter last week that baked goods around the holidays are a real treat for the guys -- and they LOVE it!)
Make Ahead and Freeze
Don't think you have to bake all this stuff at the last minute. Start the first week in December, freeze what you make and then move on to the next batch. This makes the baking less overwhelming and you can spread it out over time. I freeze my cookies flat in freezer bags and then defrost at room temperature. They taste delicious every time. The more you plan ahead, the more enjoyable this process is and it will save you money in the long run.
Presentation is Everything
Package your baked goods with thought and care. I garnish each bag or box with ribbon, flowers, herbs or pine from the outdoors. You can purchase white boxes, Chinese takeout containers or festive holiday baskets at any department store or discount shop for short change. I buy in bulk online and save a ton because I give edible gifts often throughout the year. The little extra effort with packaging goes a long way and shows you put thought and care into the gift.