While it may be better to give than to receive, choosing the right gift can be a nerve-racking experience, fraught with vexing uncertainties that can sap gift-giving of all its joy.

I have a theory based on my own experience, together with 14 years’ worth of letters from my readers, that the biggest gift-giving dilemma is the price tag. We worry that someone might think we didn’t spend enough money on their gift. Whether people really do that or not, it is this tit-for-tat element that sends a lot of people into debt.

The solution for removing the price-tag element altogether is to make your gifts. And by making your gifts consumable you’ll hit a bull’s eye every time.

Over the years we’ve come up with gifts anyone can make in the kitchen that turned out to be big winners. And this year we add several more. By the way, most of these holiday treats suitable for gift-giving can be made well in advance. That means you can get started early.

SueSue’s Chocolate Pecans
Sue Vaughn, Texas

1 pound whole pecan halves

(about 4 cups)

1/2 stick (1/4 cup) butter

1 teaspoon salt (or to taste)

12 ounces melting chocolate wafers, or equivalent*

Preheat oven to 350 F. Place butter in a medium bowl. Microwave for 30 seconds on high or until melted. Add pecans and stir until well coated. Spread pecans on a cookie sheet in a single layer and sprinkle generously with salt.

Bake pecans for about 10-12 minutes or until they just begin to turn a shade darker. Stir several times so they roast evenly. Watch carefully because they can burn very easily. You do not want to burn the pecans.

Meanwhile in microwave, melt the chocolate in the same bowl you used to melt the butter, following package instructions. Stir until melted. Remove pecans from oven and pour into a bowl. Pour chocolate over pecans and stir to coat thoroughly. Drop by spoonfuls onto waxed paper. If you want, you can break up some of the pecans to make smaller portions.

Once completely cooled, place in airtight containers or ziplock bags.

Yield: A lot—and they’re fabulous!

Variations: You can make this with white chocolate or almond bark too.

*Melting wafers are chocolate that’s formulated for making candy. They are inexpensive and easy to use. Melt ‘n Mold is one brand (www.guittard.com), available at grocery stores, cake and candy supply stores, and craft stores. Chocolate bars and bakers chocolate melt well. Chocolate chips, however, are formulated to resist melting. If chips are your only option, you can melt them but it’s tricky. Stir in 1 teaspoon solid vegetable shortening (not oil, margarine or butter) for each ounce of chips. Microwave on medium power at 30-second intervals.

Almond Crunch
Marsha Hedden, California

1 cup butter (no substitutes)

1 1/4 cups sugar

2 tablespoons corn syrup

2 tablespoons water

1 cup chopped or slivered almonds, toasted

1 12-ounce package (2 cups) milk chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 375 F. Arrange almonds in a single layer on a baking sheet. Toast until lightly browned, approximately five minutes.

Line a jelly roll pan with foil.

In a heavy saucepan, combine butter, sugar, corn syrup, and water.

Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until mixture boils. Boil, without stirring, to hard crack stage, 300 F. Remove from heat.

Working quickly, stir in almonds, and pour mixture into foil-lined jelly roll pan; tip pan from side to side to spread candy evenly in pan. Sprinkle chocolate chips over candy brittle. Let stand about 5 minutes, or until shiny and soft. Spread chocolate evenly over candy. Cool to room temperature, then refrigerate for one hour. Break into bite-size pieces.

Note: Best when made on a dry day. If it’s raining this will not get as brittle as it should.

Peppermint Bark

8 ounces white chocolate, chopped

4 red-and-white peppermint sticks or candy canes, 6 inches long

2 drops peppermint oil or extract

Equipment:

A cookie sheet with sides, about 13 by 17 inches, lined with parchment paper or a nonstick baking mat

Melt the chocolate in a double boiler or microwave. Place the peppermint sticks in a heavy, locked plastic bag and crush them finely by whacking and then rolling them with a rolling pin. They should have about the same consistency as crushed ice.

When the chocolate is melted, stir in the peppermint oil. Stir in all but 2 tablespoons of the crushed peppermint pieces and spread the mixture out on the cookie sheet, about 1/4-inch thick. It will not fill the pan completely. Sprinkle the reserved peppermint stick over the top. Let set at room temperature until hardened, about

two hours. (Or, refrigerate for 30 minutes to harden more quickly.) Use your hands to break into pieces. Store in an airtight container for up to 2 weeks.

Easy Candy Cane Fudge

2 10-ounce packages white chocolate chunk-sized chips*

1 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk (like Eagle Brand)

1/2 teaspoon peppermint extract

1 1/2 cups crushed candy canes

1 dash red or green food coloring

Line an 8-inch square baking pan with aluminum foil; grease the foil. Combine the chocolate and sweetened condensed milk in a saucepan over medium heat. Stir frequently until almost melted, remove from heat and continue to stir until smooth. When chips are completely melted, stir in the peppermint extract, food coloring, and candy canes. Spread evenly in the bottom of the prepared pan. Chill for 2 hours, then cut into squares.

*A 12-ounce package of small white chocolate chips may be substituted.

Christmas Crunch

2 cups white sugar

2/3 cup light corn syrup

1/2 cup water

3 tablespoons butter

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

2 cups crispy rice cereal

1 cup cashews

Grease one 10 x 15 inch baking pan.

In a large saucepan over medium heat, combine the sugar, corn syrup and water; bring to a boil, stirring constantly until sugar is dissolved.

Continue to cook, without stirring until a candy thermometer reads 300 F.

Remove from heat; stir in butter, vanilla and baking soda. Add cereal and cashews; pour into prepared pan and allow to cool. Break into pieces and store in airtight container. Recipe doubles well.

Christmas Walnut Toffee

1 cup butter

1 cup white sugar

1 tablespoon corn syrup

3 tablespoons water

1 1/2 cups chopped walnuts, divided

1 6-ounce package chocolate chips

Butter a 9-inch square baking dish, and set aside. Melt butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Stir in the sugar and corn syrup until smooth. Heat to 290 F., using a candy thermometer.

When the temperature has been reached, stir in 1 cup of the walnuts, and cook for three more minutes, stirring constantly. Pour into the prepared pan, and allow to cool. When the toffee is cooled, remove from the pan, and place onto waxed paper. Melt chocolate chips in a metal bowl over a pan of simmering water, or in the microwave, stirring frequently until smooth.

Spread half of the melted chocolate onto one side of the toffee slab, and sprinkle with half of the remaining nuts. Allow to cool until set, then repeat on the other side of the toffee. Break into bite size pieces when set. Yield: 1 1/2 pounds.

Holiday Hash

Combine in a big bowl:

3 cups Rice Chex

3 cups Corn Chex

3 cups Cheerios

2 cups small pretzels

2 cups salted peanuts

1 bag (12 oz.) plain M&Ms

1 bag (12 oz.) peanut M&Ms

2 12-ounce bags white chocolate chips

Melt chips according to the package instructions. Be careful to not overcook as these chips burn quickly. Pour the melted white chocolate over the mixture and with a strong long-handled wooden spoon toss well to coat.

Spread the hash out on waxed paper and let set until the chocolate hardens. Store in an airtight container or pour into gift bags. Using red and green M&Ms gives a very festive looking result.

Traditional Holiday Fudge

Combine in a large mixing bowl and set aside:

1 cup (6 ounce) semi-sweet chocolate chips

1 cup chopped walnuts

1 teaspoon vanilla

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter

Combine in a large saucepan:

12 large marshmallows (no minis, no marshmallow cream)

2 cups granulated sugar

3/4 cup evaporated milk

Bring ingredients in the saucepan to a boil over medium-high heat then turn down to medium so it continues to boil actively, stirring constantly. Once the marshmallows melt, continue boiling and stirring for exactly 6 minutes (time this carefully) and remove from stove.

Immediately pour this hot mixture over ingredients in the bowl. Stir to combine and then beat by hand for exactly 20 minutes (you may do this on Low with an electric mixer) or until you cannot stir it any longer because it is so thick. Pour into a lightly buttered 8-inch square glass dish. (Hint: Also spray with non-stick baking spray to make sure it comes out easily.) Sprinkle a few ground nuts on top (optional) and refrigerate to harden. Wait for several hours, then cut into squares.

Note: Measurements, cooking and beating times must be exact. No "fudging" allowed or this won’t turn out. But if you follow the directions exactly, you will have excellent results.

World’s Best Hot Chocolate Mix

1 8-quart box Carnation instant dry milk

1 22-oz. jar Cremora coffee creamer

1 1-lb box powdered sugar (any brand)

1 14.5-oz. box Hershey’s Instant Chocolate Drink Mix (not cocoa)

Dump all ingredients into a very large container (bowl, pan or plastic bag). Mix thoroughly. Store in a tightly sealed container. (Specific brands are required for best result.) To use: Measure 1/3 to 1/2 cup mix into a mug and fill with hot water.

Packaging Food Gifts

Any craft or cake decorating store carries cellophane gift bags, Chinese takeout-style boxes, tins and boxes that make perfect containers for your homemade holiday gifts.

It is always a good idea to include the ingredients so there will be no problems for people with food allergies.

Get creative! Feel free to change the names of any of these recipes to make them your own. Consider including the recipe and don’t forget to give instructions, if any, like refrigerate, best if used by [date], and so on.


"Debt-Proof Living" was founded in 1992 by Mary Hunt. What began as a newsletter to encourage and empower people to break free from the bondage of consumer debt has grown into a huge community of ordinary people who have achieved remarkable success in their quest to effectively manage their money and stay out of debt. Today, "Debt-Proof Living" is read by close to 100,000 cheapskates. Click here to subscribe.