give the gift of good taste: edible holiday gifts

I love giving gifts. I like taking the time to find something my loved ones will enjoy, I like making presents look nice, I like making people happy just by handing them something. Most of my gifts are store-bought, because I cook so much throughout the year, but this year, I did more cooking and baking for gifts than ever before.

First, the gifts that aren't edible. I don't like wrapping paper, so I generally wrap gifts in saved tissue paper, newspapers, or pages from the old Yellow Pages. I'm a bit of a closet pack rat, so I usually have that sort of thing around.
One of these packages (for my fairly-newly vegan sister) contains gifts by some other blog-wielding vegans you might know:
One of the adorable panda-with-cookie totes from Panda with Cookie's Etsy shop! AIt was a big hit. And in the tote, I put a copy of Melisser Elliott's Vegan Girls Guide to Life, which I had her sign when she visited last month.

Okay, so those are vegan gifts, but you're here to see edible vegan gifts. So without further ado:
TOFFEE. I have always loved toffee. Almost once a week when I was in elementary school, my mother would go grocery shopping next door to a small bookstore I liked. She'd give me $5 (most of the Fear Street books I liked back then were $3.99 or less), I'd go buy a book while she shopped, then I'd meet her back at the store in time to buy a Skors or Heath bar with my change. I miss toffee, and until I discovered this recipe at the kitchn, I had no idea it was so easy to make. It's not that much work or time, even, though it does require a lot of stirring.

Homemade toffee is VERY easy if you have a candy thermometer. I recommend getting one; I use it often to measure water temperatures for breads, oil temperature when I'm frying, and yes, for candy. I think mine was around $5 at the local hardware/homeware store. However, if you don't have a candy thermometer, neither did the lady who wrote the kitchn recipe above! She judges by color. I always get paranoid about having to tell the difference between "dark golden brown" and "blond" and "honey-colored" in recipes, so I stick to the thermometer. Also, I used a large, rimmed baking sheet to cool my toffee. If you don't have one (why don't you?), you can use several baking dishes, like 2 9x13s or something. Whatever you use, line the bottom and the sides with foil, and removal will be a snap. This recipe makes a lot of toffee; a large baking sheet full, enough to give as gifts to at least 4 people.
Homemade Vegan Toffee

1 lb (that's 2 cups, or 16 ounces) Earth Balance (vegan margarine). That's one box of the buttery sticks, or one tub plus 4 Tbsp
2 C sugar
1 tsp vanilla
1 1/2 cups chocolate (chips and/or chopped baking chocolate; I did a mix since I didn't want the chocolate layer to be too sweet)
toasted almonds, roughly chopped (optional)

Line a baking sheet with foil, set aside. Get out all of your ingredients ahead of time.

In a large saucepan over medium-high heat, melt the butter and sugar together. Stir this mixture constantly until it reaches 300 degrees fahrenheit. I've seen ranges between 285-310). If you don't have a candy thermometer, that's the point at which it's very thick and has turned dark golden brown. I think this is the "firm ball" stage, if you're one of those people who tests with a glass of water. It's going to be really bubbly at first, and thickens as it hardens. Anyway, that took me about half an hour. DO NOT STOP STIRRING, because if this stuff burns, all will have been for naught. Once you've reached 300 degrees, remove the saucepan from heat and stir in the vanilla. Pour the mixture into the prepared baking sheet; use a spatula to smooth out. Do this quickly, because it will start to harden.
Sprinkle the chocolate across the surface, and allow this to sit for a few minutes, until the chocolate is glossy (3 minutes, 5 if your chocolate chips/chunks are large). Use a spatula to smooth the chocolate over the toffee. If using almonds, sprinkle the almonds over the top.
Allow to cool. Our kitchen is cold, so it was totally cool in under 3 hours, but it might take longer if you have heat in your kitchen. Anyway, once the bottom of the baking sheet is cool to the touch, remove the whole thing, foil and all, from the baking sheet. Peel the foil off the toffee (it comes off really easily), and break the toffee into whatever sized pieces you'd like. Store toffee between sheets of wax paper in an airtight container.

It's dangerous for me to know how easy it is to make toffee. The only thing that is not preventing me from making it (and eating it) all the time is that it takes a whole pound of Earth Balance, which is both pricy and fatty. It is a special occasion food, Sarah, remember that!

If you have trouble cleaning up the saucepan and spoon, I recommend running your hottest tap water or boiled water over them. This loosens up and dissolves the sugar.

Okay, so maybe toffee still seems too tough to you, or isn't your thing, or, like me, you want a sampler of desserts to give to relatives. What else is a good edible holiday gift?
Chocolate bark! This is another one of those things I thought was harder to make than it actually is. In fact, it is so simple that I feel silly giving a recipe for it, so I will just give you instructions.

Melt equal parts sweetened and unsweetened chocolate (ie, chocolate chips and baking chocolate) together in a double-boiler or bain-marie.

While it melts, chop up what you're going to put into your bark. In my opinion, the perfect chocolate bark consists of four flavor sensations: chocolate, nuts, dried fruit, and something that's surprising and/or has a kick. You can experiment at will, but here are some suggestions:
  • Nuts: Almonds, hazelnuts, cashews, macadamias, peanuts;
  • Dried Fruits: Cranberries, raisins, apricots, apples, dates, figs, currants, mango?;
  • Something surprising/with a kick: candied ginger, candied citrus peel, prettily zested citrus, crushed candy canes or other flavorful candy, vegan white or butterscotch chips, pretzels (okay, those don't all have a kick, but are surprising and fun, so they go in this category).
Depending on how much chocolate you use, you want from 1/2 to 1 Cup of each of these things.

As with the toffee, you shape the bark by pouring it into a foil-lined pan. for 16 ounces of chocolate, you'll need at least 9X10 inches. I only used about 10 ounces of chocolate, so I used my 7x11 baking dish, and if you'll note, the bark is still pretty thick. Anyway, pour the chocolate into the pan, then sprinkle your chopped ingredients over the top. Use your hands to press them down into the chocolate. Let this cool for several hours. When the bottom of the pan is cool to the touch, you can remove it from the dish, peel back the foil, and cut it into pretty squares--or break it into rustic chunks.

I also made treats for my coworkers: Almond Crescent Cookies. When I was little, my mom made these a few times. She didn't like to make them, because blanching and grinding all the almonds was a real chore, but I LOVED them. I have never actually thought Crescent Cookies look like crescents; as a child they reminded me more of worms, so in my head, they will always be Worm Cookies.
I cheated: I used Bob's Red Mill almond meal instead of grinding the almonds myself. I made this recipe from Martha Stewart, substituting Earth Balance for the butter. The "dough" never came together; it was all crumbly. I added a Tbsp of soymilk, though, and it behaved EXACTLY like it should. The resulting cookies are very good, very subtle, and one of my coworkers came up to tell me that the cookies were exactly like the Vanilla Kipferl his German grandmother used to make (Kipferl is German for Cresent).

Finally, for my brother Robby, I made homemade grenadine. I used the recipe from the Cupcake Project as a starter, but changed a few things. I'll write more about it soon. (I'm planning an epic Pomegranate Post coming up in January.)
I also gave Robby some Chocolate Peppermint Penguins, which I made by taking the leftover chocolate and crushed candy canes from my Candy Cane Biscotti, mixing it, and pouring it into my Penguin Ice Cube Tray. I love that thing; I got it for free back when I worked for a publishing company that was a division of Penguin Books. I forgot to take pictures of the penguins, though, so you will just have to imagine how cute they were.

Did you give any edible or vegan gifts this holiday season? Did you get any? What were your favorites?


Great Expectations: hearty rolls and stew

I love food and I love to read. As a result, the first week [or the third week...] of each month, I'll combine these two interests in a post about food from literature. I'll mostly be sticking with books from classic literature, so you're likely to know the storylines anyway, but just in case you don't: warning: there may be spoilers ahead.


This time of year, everyone pays attention to Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol, which, despite all the corny movies and TV specials based on it, is a good story. But for my "food in literature" post this month, I want to talk about another of his famous works: Great Expectations.
A lot of people read this book in high school or at least college, but I somehow avoided ever having to read Dickens in an academic setting, so in reading this book, which everyone else implied was long and heavy, I found a pleasant surprise. It's long, and it's a dreary story, but the characters are very much alive and interesting, and the grime and gloom of Dicken's Victorian England is positively palpable. Few of the characters are really likeable, but you want to give them the benefit of a doubt; it is their environment that makes them who they are.

And what an environment! The settings in Great Expectations could be characters on their own. We visit and revisit the graveyard, the swampy Kent marshes, Miss Havisham's ruined mansion, the dingy London apartment, the ominous lawyer's office--they build up around the characters and the reader like a tall wall. Dickens's Victorian England is gray, depressing, and oppressive. But there are respites! There are some good people, and in this book, the good people are accompanied by good places--and good food. I always invoke food in literature as a depiction of comfort and emotional (as well as physical) nourishment; Great Expectations seems to do the same. Joe, the Pockets, and Wemmick are some of the most likeable characters in the book, and the homes of these people are the few sources of warmth and light that Great Expectations offers. And with all of these people, Pip eats food.

There is a fair amount of alcohol, and some tea, but we do not see many of the characters' meals. Because food does not appear often in the book, when it does appear, it is obvious that it has an important role. Early in Pip's life, we see that the abused little boy takes a great deal of comfort in eating bread with Joe, his sister's kind husband. At the uncomfortable Christmas dinner, Joe gives Pip extra gravy to try to make up for the boy's treatment. When Pip comes into money, one of the first things he does in London is eat with Herbert Pocket--buttered chicken and parsley, strawberries for dessert. And when he meets Wemmick, a trusty advisor and friend, Wemmick invites him back to his eccentric but endearing house for a homegrown meal.

As I said a couple weeks ago, I was originally going to recreate a vegan version of a Pork Pie. But then I read what pork pies are; ground-up season pork surrounded by pork-flavored gelatin in a pie shell. I thought about grinding up and seasoning tofu, making an agar-tofu-jelly, and baking that, but it still doesn't sound appetizing. More revolting than comforting. I realized, though, that Pip never ate the Pork Pie; it was not a source of comfort to him. The bread that he and Joe share early in the book and the simple meal of stewed vegetables that they pull from Wemmick's garden are not only more appetizing, but much easier to veganize.
Wemmick's stew isn't vegan--he adds fish--but my Autumn Root Stew is actually probably pretty close to the recipe Dickens had in mind. This time I added a cup or so of chickpeas for protein.

Pull-apart rolls are fond memories from my childhood, and this reminded me of Pip's fond moments eating bread with Joe. I like to add some whole wheat flour (not whole wheat pastry flour!) for extra heartiness, but you can do all white flour if you prefer. You'll probably end up using a little less water, though. If you want to replace MORE of the white four with whole wheat flour, add a couple Tbsps of gluten flour to make it stick together and rise better, and you may need more water.
Hearty Pull-Apart Rolls
Makes 12 rolls

3 tsps active dry yeast (you can also use a packet, but that's less yeast, so give it a little more rising time)
1 tsp sugar
1 Cup warm (not hot) water
2 Tbsp oilve oil, divided
1/2 tsp salt
2 1/2 Cups all-purpose flour
1/2 Cup whole wheat flour
Vegan margarine, to top (optional)

Mix the yeast and sugar in the bottom of a large bowl. Add about half the water. Give this about 5 minutes to sit. Meanwhile, gather your other ingredients.

Add the rest of the water, the salt and 1 Tbsp oil. Stir to combine. Add the flour a cup or so at a time. After the 2nd time, you probably won't be able to stir much anymore, so use your hands. Once it's all fairly combined, turn the dough out onto a lightly-floured surface, and knead for 5-10 minutes, sprinkling extra flour over the top if it's too sticky. The key to really nice, light bread is to keep the dough as wet as possible, so ideally you want it a little sticky, but not if that makes it too tough to work with. Roll the dough into a large ball.

Use the remaining 1 Tbsp oil to grease the sides of a large bowl. Put the ball of dough in the bowl, turning to coat it with the oil. Set a dish cloth over the top of the bowl, and leave in a warm place (our kitchen is cold, so sometimes I preheat my oven briefly, then set the bowl on top) for at least two hours.

After two hours (or more), punch down the dough and remove from the bowl. Lightly oil a pie plate. Divide the dough into twelve equal parts. (I find this is easiest to do by dividing it in half. Take one of the halves; divide that in half. Then divide each of those smaller halves into three. Voila, twelfths!) Roll the twelfths into balls, and space them fairly equally in the pie plate. They won't touch; that's okay. Cover again with the dishcloth, leave to rise for at least another hour. Preheat the oven to 375.

Depending on how warm your kitchen is, after an hour the rolls might be touching. If not, don't worry; they rise more in the oven. Remove the dishcloth, then bake the rolls for 20-25 minutes. You'll know they're done because tops will be golden brown and will sound hollow if you tap on them.

Remove the rolls from the oven, and rub a tablespoon or two of butter over the tops of the rolls. It pools in the valleys between rolls--yum. Allow to cool for a couple minutes before pulling them apart (or bringing the pie plate to the table for others to pull apart).

These are best warm, but they're also good for breakfast the morning after, dipped in agave (or maple syrup) and cinnamon.

I've been wanting to do an "edible gift guide" post all December, but unfortunately, the people for whom I'll be making said edible gifts read my blog, so I've had to wait. This weekend I'll finally give people their presents, so expect an "edible gift guide" after that. And Merry Christmas to those who celebrate it!


Candy Cane Biscotti

I really like biscotti. A not-so-sweet cookie that was designed to eat with tea or coffee? How can you not love it? However, vegan biscotti is hard to come by, and even then, if you buy it, you often end up with chalky or rock-hard biscotti. Between Boston's vegan biscotti dearth and my own pickiness, I have come to the conclusion that if I want good biscotti, I really just have to make my own. I've been toying with the idea of making my own biscotti for a while, and when I found out Earth Balance's recipe page is having a dessert recipe competition, I headed into the kitchen and got to work.
After some experimenting, I ended up with a delicious Candy Cane Biscotti. You can see my recipe here on the Made Just Right site.

The biscotti aren't super sweet, but the candy cane garnish is additional sugar, so to keep the sweetness down, I used baking chocolate with only a little added sugar to dip them in. They were delicious. I brought them to a friend's Rock Band party to share, so that way I wouldn't eat them all by myself, but they went so quickly that I think my next batch of biscotti will be for me and me alone.
If you look closely, you'll see that the candy canes aren't bright white and red. This is because I used Tru Sweets' organic candy canes, which are made from organic sugar and brown rice syrup and are only colored with fruit juices. They taste and behave just like commercial, chemically candy canes, but have real ingredients.

Did you notice how GORGEOUS the above biscotti photos are? That's because I didn't take them myself. My friend Michael is a real photographer, and is the one who hosted the Rock Band party. I told him the fee for my biscotti delivery service was that he had to take snappy pictures for me. And they're so gorgeous! Thanks, Michael! Michael has a blog that I totally recommend called Dazed and Infused, which teaches you how to infuse your own spirits and make tasty drinks with them. He also includes occasional pictures of his adorable, Godzilla-sized kitties.


"food from literature" entry will be a little late this month

During the first week of each month, I like to post an entry that features food from literature. This month, however, it will have to be a little late. You see, I read Great Expectations, and was excited to veganize the traditional Victorian English fare Dickens mentions, especially the pork pie that Pip steals right in the beginning. And then I found out what a Victorian Pork Pie would actually consist of, and it grossed me out too much. Even the thought of a veganized version is unappetizing. I'll either come up with something else from the book (other foods mentioned: mince meat, chicken baked in parsley and butter... nothing too interesting to veganize), or use another book for this month. Either way, the entry will be a bit late.

In the meantime, I will be struggling to get the thought of "pork jelly" out of my head.


how I made light-blocking shades for a skylight (and hid our ugly venetian blinds)

The boyfriend has always wanted a skylight. A year and a half ago, a contractor doing work on the bedroom said that with only a day or two of extra work, he could put in a skylight. The boyfriend was psyched--finally, a skylight in his bedroom, just like he's always wanted!
We were both really excited at first. The skylight brightens up the room, and we were both enchanted by the idea of looking up and seeing stars at night.

After a couple months, however, I came to hate the skylight. I'm a very light sleeper, and I'm really light-sensitive: to fall asleep, I need darkness. To stay asleep, I need darkness. Look at the picture above. Do you see the blinds? How light gets in between them? After a couple months, I began waking up with the sun every morning and having trouble going back to sleep, because light crept in through the edges of the blinds. Even at night, if the moon was full or if there was a Red Sox game (thanks to Fenway Park, the whole Boston skyline lights up on the night of a Red Sox game), I had trouble falling asleep because of how much light the blinds let in.

We looked into buying light-blocking shades. A lot of them run $200-$500, but honestly, it would have been worth it for me to start sleeping better. But we found out that a lot of skylight models have limited options for what kinds of blinds are compatible... Our model in particular is ONLY fitted for these metallic Venetian blinds. And I have to say, even if they could block the light, I think these Venetian Blinds are pretty ugly.

I found a temporary solution:
I shoved a thick blanket between the window and the screen. It looked ugly, it began to warp the screen a little, and it made the room dark, but I finally slept better. The boyfriend, who had spent good money making this skylight happen, was a trooper, and was glad to let me get some sleep, but I could tell it was sad for him not to actually use the skylight... and I felt a little guilty. Plus, on bright sunny days, when we weren't trying to sleep, it was a lot of work to get the screen off and the blanket down just to get a little sun in our room.

I once had bought light-blocking curtains for our living room that were much too big, so when I had them shortened, there was a lot of extra material that the tailor let me keep. Looking at my blanketed skylight, I decided to put that old curtain cloth to use and make my own light-blocking shade. Because I wanted the shade to be easy to lift, I attached it to the Venetian blinds. (Another benefit of doing it this way: hiding the ugly Venetian blinds!)

Cloth (thick and/or lightblocking if you're trying to block light, but if you just want to cover up ugly Venetian shades, anything will work)
Needle and thread
Venetian Blinds

First step: I took the blinds down from their track on the skylight. I was actually planning to do it with them still on the window, but the boyfriend pointed out that it would've been a lot more work.
I cut the cloth to be the width of the Venetian blinds, and added an extra two inches of height, so I could do a quick sort of hem on the top and bottom.
I cut little tabs on each end of the hem, to slide over the edge of the blind, then just closed up the tab with a bit of thread. You will note that little green dot: because the skylight is higher up, an inexact hemming job looked fine, so I saved myself time by just making little loops every couple of inches. (I don't have a sewing machine, so hemming would have taken me quite a while.)

After I sewed the top tabs around the top blind, I counted down every six blinds and sewed the edge of the curtain around the edge of the blind:
I went back and forth several times, leaving about a finger's width of slack, since the blinds turn when you raise/lower them. When I did this, I made very tiny stitches on the front, so you can barely even tell they're there.
I did this on both sides, every six rows, until I got to the bottom. I treated the bottom like the top; I fake-hemmed it, cut little tabs in the sides of the curtain to slip over the edges, and then sewed the ends of the tabs to the curtain.

We put the blinds back on their track and: voila!
The only thing I'm not crazy about with this is that it bulges a little at the bottom. I could have avoided that by making a center tab in the bottom hem, which I think I might actually have done near the top? But it looks fine, and we rarely have the skylight closed when there are guests over, so no one notices it but me (and now you).

The thing I like best about this shade is the way it looks when we open it:
I don't know if you can see it well in the picture (my camera was not happy taking pictures of the open skylight), but it bunches a lot like a Roman shade! In this picture it wrinkled a little along the gray crank on the right, but that doesn't happen often.

Now both the boyfriend and I love our skylight: it lets in lots of lovely light, AND it lets me sleep.