When my brother and I were children, Santa always left tangerines in the toes of our Christmas stockings. That was the starting point of a lifelong association of food and food-related gifts with the Christmas season.
Items that someone has made have always been my favorite; they seem to undercut the commercial excess that has come to characterize the holiday season. I've received homemade chutneys and lemon curd, bags of spicy nuts and delicate individual poundcakes. I still have the last precious dribbles of a bottle of coffee liqueur a friend made with Prohibition-era enthusiasm one year. Many, many recipes for these simple-to-make gifts appear in Bon Appetit and Gourmet magazines and on their corollary Web site, www.epicurious.com. Chutneys can be made with almost any fruit -- peaches, cranberries, melons, apples. They can be zinged with some finely chopped jalapeno, spiced with freshly grated ginger, sweetened with sugar and cinnamon. The trick with chutneys is timing; they should be made with fresh fruit, the best of which is available in the summer.
But thinking of Christmas gifts in July is not something that comes easily to many of us. On the few occasions where I've actually thought so far ahead, I've been able to give jars of brandied fruit. The ease of making this is something I'm hesitant to reveal:
Wash an assortment of summer berries (any and all will work). Add some peeled, pitted and sliced peaches. Put in an earthenware or glass container (not metal). Add equal parts of brandy and sugar (enough so all the fruit is covered). Cover the container and place in a cool dark place. It is not necessary to refrigerate; in fact, this would slow the fermentation. Give the mix a good stirring with a wooden spoon every month or so. Package in clear glass jars; tie with a seasonal ribbon, and advise the recipient to use sparingly on ice cream or poundcake.
Flavored vinegars are even easier to make. Fill unusual bottles with white wine vinegar and combinations of fresh herbs: tarragon and dill; jalapeno peppers, cilantro and garlic; chives, basil and parsley. Use any herbs that seem interesting.
If making something is not your forte and the gift is for a cook, you probably have a stack of catalogs from which to select the perfect gadget or utensil. Give a good look to these three: Sur la Table, Chef's, and Williams-Sonoma. Sur la Table (www.surlatable.com) started as a cookware store in Seattle and mushroomed from there. Items range from the whimsical -- pale blue ceramic measuring cups shaped like antique teacups designed by Britain's doyenne of dining, Nigella Lawson -- to the magnificent -- cookware by All-Clad, knives by Henckel, and (are you listening, Santa?) a stunning copper risotto pan.
Chef's Catalog (www.chefscatalog.com) is a bit more serious, grouping items according to brand and/or use ("Storage Space," "Entertainment," "Food Preparation"). Testimonials from known and soon-to-be-known chefs dot the pages. My advice: Ignore their pages of "Gifts You Want Under the Tree" and browse for something whose beauty matches its functionality. Nobody, not even Nigella, wants a deep fryer for Christmas. There are, on the other hand, some nifty things elegantly designed elsewhere in the catalog. Cuisinart has a stainless steel coffeemaker that grinds the beans before brewing; and there's a sexy little wine refrigerator, also in stainless, that holds nine bottles and sits handily on a counter. Be sure to fill it before you give it.
Chef's has recently offered food items, though they pale in comparison with edibles from Williams-Sonoma (www.williams-sonoma.com), the most delicious and comprehensive food and cooking catalog. They've got everything from table linens to French paper towel holders, bakers' racks to Provenal platters, Italian tomato presses to brioche molds. Among the foodstuffs are French chocolates, Italian oils, English cheeses, Australian apricots and sweets from around the world, including an assortment of Christmas cookies from Dancing Deer Bakery in Boston.
Dancing Deer Bakery was started in 1994; by 1997, they started the mail-order business; they now supply big guys like Williams-Sonoma and Wild Oats Market but will happily sell you a single cookie if you stop by the bakery. No time for a flight to Boston? Visit their Web site, www.dancingdeer.com, for all their award-winning offerings like a tin of molasses clove cookies, a maple pumpkin cranberry cake, or the brandy-drenched Harvest cake. Sign up a sweet-toothed pal for a Monthly Munchie Cookie Subscription. Sign up for their newsletter filled with staff and fan recommendations.
One suggestion I'm trying on Christmas Eve will pair that besotted Harvest cake with some excellent cheeses from Par Avion, crusty bread from Panera Breads (both now in their new Southgate locations), pears from the granddaddy of mail-order fruit, Oregon's Harry & David (
www.harryanddavid.com) , and a glass or two of fine port for me and my friends.
And while that makes us sound like a bunch of self-consumed foodies, we'll actually be doing a little good in the world. Dancing Deer Bakery is involved with The Sweet Home Project, raising money to eradicate homelessness. Panera Breads has donated locally to Care and Share through its Operation Dough-Nation. And we're all planning to give each other a copy of Cooking from the Heart, a collection of recipes and the stories that inspired them from 100 nationally prominent chefs like Deborah Madison, Alice Waters and Rick Bayliss. A portion of the proceeds will benefit Share Our Strength, the anti-hunger agency that many of our finest local chefs support. That's the message Santa left with the tangerine: that this is the season to celebrate and share, to enjoy a little food, and to spread a little goodness.