Making your gifts really stand out

Homemade food and drink can make pretty presents this Christmas. Lucy Oates reports on how to beat the last-minute shopping crowds.

If you can't get out this weekend for last-minute Christmas shopping because of the weather how about this for an idea? In these days of fervent consumerism, there's something very appealing about receiving a simple, homemade gift. And if you want to have a few extra presents to hand ready for any unexpected visitors who turn up at your door, package up a few homemade treats and goodies. Those jars of jam and chutney and bottles of sloe gin you made in the autumn can be easily transformed into covetable gifts by adding pretty, festive finishing touches. It's also worth baking batches of gingerbread, peanut brittle and other tempting sweets. These can be presented in old-fashioned kilner jars, which look attractive and keep the contents fresh. Here are a couple of recipes to try:

Peanut brittle

340g (12oz) raw peanuts, coarsely chopped

170g (6oz) caster sugar

170g (6oz) golden syrup

60ml (2fl oz) water

3 tbsp butter

2 tsp vanilla essence

1 tsp baking powder

Combine the sugar, syrup, water and butter in a large saucepan, and bring to the boil over a moderate heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Boil for three minutes.

When the sugar mixture forms a fine thread, add the nuts.

Taking care not to let the mixture burn, continue heating the sugar for another ten to 15 minutes, or until it separates into hard, brittle threads.

Remove the pan from the heat and quickly stir in the vanilla and baking powder.

When the mixture is light and foamy, pour it onto a greased baking tray, spreading it into the corners.

Leave to cool completely, and then break into chunks.

You can test what stage your hot sugar mixture is at by dropping a teaspoon of it into a bowl of cold water. Leave it for a minute, then test the consistency using your thumb and forefinger to determine whether it's starting to form fine threads or is hard and brittle.

Gingerbread biscuits

350g plain white flour

1 tsp bicarbonate of soda

3 tbsp ground ginger

1 tbsp ground cinnamon

125g butter

175g soft, light brown sugar

4 tbsp golden syrup

1 egg

Blend the butter with the spices, bicarbonate of soda and flour until it has the consistency of breadcrumbs, then mix in the sugar.

Slightly warm the syrup and then beat the egg into it. Add this to the butter and flour mixture, and combine until it forms a soft dough.

Roll the dough onto a floured surface and cut it into festive shapes with cookie cutters; I use gingerbread men and star-shaped cutters.

Put your gingerbread shapes onto a greased, baking tray and bake at 200C for about ten minutes, or until golden brown.

This gingerbread recipe can also be used to make attractive, homemade Christmas tree decorations; just remember to pierce a hole in the dough shapes before you bake them so that you'll be able to thread raffia or a ribbon through to hang them.

Decorating your homemade gifts

To give your homemade gifts an individual look, you don't need to spend a fortune on packaging. Gather together remnants of fabric, tissue paper and ribbon, as well as pine cones, leaves, seedheads, berries and other attractive items collected on walks in the countryside. I always save pieces of ribbon and bows from gifts that we receive for recycling later; it's kinder to the environment, as well as much more cost-effective.

Top your jars of jam and chutney with rounds of pretty fabric in festive reds, greens and golds, tied in place with a length of ribbon or raffia. Pine cones and fronds of foliage can be secured around the necks of bottles and jars with a small length of floristry wire. Be creative and rummage through draws and cupboards in search of bits and pieces that you can use, you'll be amazed what you come up with. Last year's Christmas cards can be cut up to create labels that can be tied in place with raffia or ribbon, and sticky jam pot labels can be bought cheaply from most supermarkets. These can be stuck to the side of your bottles and jars of homemade goodies to tell the lucky recipient what they contain and when it was made. Candy canes can be tied to the neck of jars of sweets with ribbon.

Wrapping parcels

Few of us can get away with making all of the gifts that we give to friends and family members, but you can give shop-bought gifts the same home-spun feel by wrapping them in remnants of fabric or plain old brown paper. Add colour and interest by embellishing your parcels with remnants of ribbon and sequins, as well as dried leaves, pine cones and glossy, evergreen foliage. Add a touch of gold or silver spray paint, which is available from florist and craft shops, or glue on little jewels and sequins to give an opulent feel.

CW 18/12/10