VANILLA-RUM CARAMELS

 
 

Caramels are actually my favorite food-related gift to give people during the holidays. One batch goes a long way, and homemade caramels just feel like an extra special treat. You can flavor caramels a crap ton of different ways (see also: Beer Caramels, Bourbon Vanilla Caramels, Pumpkin Spice Caramels), but I always find that a classic combo of caramel, vanilla, sea salt, and a little booze is the way to go. 

There are LOTS of ways to package these guys up, but some favorites include: (a) using empty paper towel, wrapping paper, or TP rolls, cutting them to the desired size, filling them with caramels, and then wrapping them up with cellophane wrap or wrapping paper (they're like those popper things you can find around the holidays that have a toy and a paper crown inside!); (b) using kraft paper bags and sewing them shut with bakers twine; and (c) filling mason jars and tying them with festive ribbon or fabric.

Vanilla-Rum Caramels

nonstick spray
2 cups sugar
1/2 cup light corn syrup
1  14 oz. can sweetened condensed milk
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
2 1/2 TB dark rum
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
good quality flaky sea salt

Directions:

  1. Lightly coat a 8 x 8″ baking pan with nonstick spray and line with parchment paper, leaving a 2″ overhang on 2 sides.
  2. Bring sugar, corn syrup, 1/4 cup water to a boil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat, stirring to dissolve sugar. Cook, swirling pan occasionally, until mixture turns a deep amber color, 8 - 15 minutes. You don't want to walk away from this, as once it starts to darken, it'll move pretty quickly and you don't want a pot of burnt sugar on your hands.
  3. Remove pan from heat and whisk in sweetened condensed milk and butter (mixture will bubble vigorously) until smooth. Fit pan with candy thermometer and return to medium-low heat. Cook, whisking constantly, until thermometer registers 240F.
  4. Remove from heat and whisk in the rum, vanilla, and kosher salt. Pour into prepared pan; let cool.
  5. Sprinkle caramel with sea salt, cut into 1 inch pieces and wrap individually in parchment paper. Don't use foil wrappers. Sticky nightmare.
  6. Caramels can be made a few weeks in advance. Store in an airtight container at room temperature (if you're using immediately) or in the fridge (if you're looking to keep them around for a while). I keep mine in the fridge, for the most part, but leave a handful at a time in the candy dish.

PISTACHIO + BLACK SESAME SNOWBALLS

 
snowballs for gifting
 

Snowballs. Swedish Heirloom Cookies. Russian Tea Cakes. Mexican Wedding Cookies. Different names for the same cookie.

These snowballs are based off the traditional recipe my grandmother used for her Christmas cookies when I was growing up, but instead of almonds, I've used roasted pistachios, and also added some black sesame paste. The result is a sweet, nutty, earthy cookie that ends up being a bit more intriguing than the original (though, don't get me wrong, I still love the traditional cookie!)

Pro tip: when eating snowballs, do not inhale while you eat lest you end up coughing up a cloud of powdered sugar.

Anyway, it's food gift packaging week!

If you're like me, you're probably about to start a whole lot of holiday baking, most of which will get wrapped up and gifted to friends, family, coworkers, your mail carrier, kids' teachers, your hair stylist, etc. Baking is a pretty economical way to give gifts. You can throw a huge batch of cookies together for a very small amount of money, divide them up, and end up with gifts for more than a few people. Food-related gifts are the best...they're useful, they don't result in more unnecessary trinkets/junk on the receiving end, and because they're homemade, it's obvious that you put legit time and energy into something. When I get homemade food gifts, I feel loved (even if I'm not crazy about the actual food item gifted). 

Over the course of this week, I'll show you a few different simple ways to package up those food gifts with the hope of giving you some new ideas to use this holiday season. And I'll throw in a few recipes, too, of course. 

Back to the snowballs. I like them best piled in a mason jar tied with a ribbon, as shown above. It helps protect them (they can be fragile), and it keeps the powdered sugar insanity contained. Mason jars are pretty cheap when you buy them in boxes of 12-16 (you can even get them at the hardware store), and I found this pretty twill ribbon on sale last year at Target.  I love giving these out, in any variation, as gifts during the holidays. They're festive -- I mean, they actually look like little snowballs -- and super simple to make.

Pistachio + Black Sesame Snowballs

recipe makes 18-24 cookies (can be easily doubled or tripled!)

1 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup confectioner's (powdered) sugar, plus extra for tossing
1/2 cup unsalted butter, at room temp
1/4 tsp kosher salt
3.5 oz shelled dry roasted unsalted pistachios (I found mine, shelled, at Trader Joe's)
1 TB vanilla extract
a little less than 1/3 cup black sesame paste (found at specialty and asian grocery stores, or make your own)

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 325F. Line two cookie sheets with parchment.

  2. Grind up pistachios in your blender or food processor. You can go for whatever texture you'd like here - I prefer them to be roughly ground so the cookies have a crunchier texture.
  3. In the bowl of your stand mixer, beat butter and sugar together until fluffy.
  4. Add in the rest of the ingredients, and mix until combined. Be sure to scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl once or twice to make sure you're incorporating everything.
  5. Scoop into tablespoon-size chunks, and roll each chunk between your hands to create a smooth sphere. place 2 inches apart on your cookie sheets.
  6. Bake at 325F for 18-24 minutes. The bottoms of the cookies should be golden, and the tops should only have the slightest touch of color. You don't want them to dry out too much.
  7. Pour extra powdered sugar into a bowl. Roll hot/warm cookies in the powdered sugar, and place them on a rack, or on a different (cool) cookie sheet to finish cooling. Lightly dust cookies with more powdered sugar, if desired.
  8. Eat!
  9. These last a while -- if they're sealed airtight, you can get away with about a week or so.