Maybe you overdid it on Black Friday. Perhaps, your gift list is rapidly expanding the closer you get to Christmas. Or maybe, you feel that a gift has more meaning when your own blood, sweat and tears have gone into it. Whatever the case, your scouring the internet in search of a homemade gift that will not be stored in the back of the freezer, will not cause you to break the bank (again), and, perhaps most importantly, will not cause you to have a holiday-induced postal breakdown.
This is a tricky balance to strike. To my knowledge, none of my homemade gifts have gotten the freezer treatment, but I have overextended myself in the home gift department more than once. Take my plan to make Christmas cookies for all my colleagues one year. What could be easier than baking cookies? It seemed foolproof until halfway through baking when the power went out in my apartment from a winter storm. I maintained my composure when I had to toss one batch of cookies in the trash. It was only 10 pm and I hadn’t lost hope. I found candles, lit them and my gas burners, and set about melting chocolate over a double boiler.
Somewhere around 10:30 pm as the temperature in my drafty apartment started to drop, I learned what it means to have your chocolate seize. I’m not sure how I got water into the chocolate, but it worked its magic turning my bowl of beautifully melted chocolate into a stiff, completely ruined mass. This being in my pre-culinary school days I had no idea what had just happened. I gathered what little determination I had left, rinsed out the bowl, and started again only to have the same thing happen (I didn’t dry the bowl). At this point, I must have blacked out from despair and rage as I don’t remember anything else. I do remember that my cookie tins each contained about 3 cookies; the rest of the cookie tin being filled with candy from the grocery store.
Yet another year, I decided homemade pasta was going to be our gift of choice to friends, neighbors, and family members. It’s a testament to my stubbornness and my husband’s willingness to make me happy in those giddy early days of marriage that we endured three full days of pasta making. Flour dusted everything, pasta lay drying on every available surface (including laid out on towels on our guest bedroom bed), and Lady, the only happy creature in our home at that point, joyfully scampered around the house scarfing down unattended pasta. If that wasn’t bad enough, the real kicker came when I started receiving reports that our pasta, while having arrived safely at destinations all over the country, had shattered into a million pieces during transit. We have not done pasta as a gift since and I became a firm believer in Murphy’s Law when it comes to good deeds.
Which brings me to caramel popcorn. A gift of this sweet and spicy snack mix could not be simpler to make, will not break the bank, and can’t be thrown in a freezer. There are tons of recipes for caramel popcorn on the internet, but realizing all that was at stake I found a trustworthy recipe from Paula Deen and proceeded to kick it up a notch with roasted pecans and cayenne pepper. It’s a keeper. Sure to be a hit with friends and family and stress-free enough to make you actually start to believe that homemade gifts are the way to go. Happy cooking!
While I wouldn’t put a lot of faith in a recipe for caramel corn from Jacques Pepin, I assumed that Paula Deen knew her stuff when it came to this sticky sweet treat. My assumption was correct and the final product was gift worthy and stress free. I added pecans and cayenne to kick things up a notch.
¼ cup vegetable or canola oil
½ cup white popcorn kernels
2 cups roasted and lightly salted pecans (peanuts could also be substituted)
1 cup brown sugar
½ cup unsalted butter
¼ cup light corn syrup
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon cayenne
½ teaspoon baking soda
Preheat the oven to 225 degrees. Spray two baking sheets generously with cooking spray.
In a large pot, heat the vegetable oil over medium high heat. Add one popcorn kernel and place the lid slightly askew (to allow the steam to escape) on top. When the kernel pops, add the rest of the kernels and cook, shaking occasionally and with the cover askew, until all of the kernels have popped. Remove the lid and pour the popcorn into a large bowl with the pecans.
In a small saucepan, combine the brown sugar, unsalted butter, corn syrup, salt and cayenne. Bring to a boil and cook for 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the baking soda.
Immediately pour the butter mixture over the popcorn and pecans and use spoons to toss until well coated. Divide the mixture between the two baking sheets and spread out. Bake for 1 hour, stirring the mixture every 15 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool before stuffing into bags or tins for gift giving. Store in an airtight container for up to 2 weeks.