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Holiday Gifts Good Enough To Eat

I always spend a lot of time in my kitchen, but this time of year, I'm pretty well ensconced there for the duration. I'm roasting my usual fall staples of cauliflower and Brussels sprouts, of course. However, the real reason I cheerfully give over Sunday afternoons to creaming butter and melting sugar is because the holidays are coming, and I am powerless against the urge to bake.

After the Thanksgiving crumbs have been swept away and I finally feel ready to start thinking about food again, I plan my homemade holiday gift-giving. I'm not gifted artistically, and unfortunately am hopeless at knitting and sewing. But what I can — and do — provide is an assortment of edible treats for my loved ones near and far.

This year in particular, making holiday gifts from scratch lends not only a personal touch but an economical one. With the markets doing a very un-festive bait-and-switch, many of us are watching our pennies ever more carefully. Making the relatively minor investment in a few extra bags of sugar, flour and sea salt can do wonders for the wallet, and it's infinitely satisfying to transform those humble ingredients into homey, delicious goodies that will be truly appreciated by their recipients.

There's something old-fashioned — in a good way — about going the homemade route. And for the cook, it's a simple and gratifying pleasure.

I've been distributing homemade treats to friends and relatives for years. One time, I planned far in advance (a few months, at least) and made a version of limoncello, an Italian lemon-infused liqueur, grating lemon rind and letting it steep in a large bottle of vodka for weeks. I later decanted the delicious citrus-y alcohol into smaller bottles to be tucked into gift bags with instructions to serve it icy cold.

Another year, I filled jars with dried beans and a recipe for bean soup, with strict instructions that it be prepared during January's post-holiday slump. I don't know if anyone ever made the soup, but all those legumes looked so pretty layered in their shining glass containers. I've baked countless cookies — sugar, ginger, butter and more — and stacked and tied them with ribbons.

I was inspired to take the homemade route by my mother. When I was growing up, I watched her fill gift bags with loaves of her traditional holiday poppy seed bread, wrapped in crackling red cellophane, and take them to our neighbors. It was like bringing a little bit of her kitchen into another's. I love that idea.

I've sent a dozen cupcakes via overnight mail, carefully packed up jars of homemade jam and whipped up batches of gluten-free dog biscuits for special pups with dietary restrictions. My baking is my way of saying thanks, happy birthday or happy holidays. The homemade gift is a gift of love.

Edible gifts can be specially tailored for the giftee. For my dad, who is on a low-cholesterol diet, for example, I pore over recipes for healthful treats to cater to his sweet tooth. (Last year, it was dried-fruit-and-nut cookies bound together with just a little orange juice, and dusted in powdered sugar). For my grandma, I always bake mini loaves of lemon tea bread, because it's her favorite of all the recipes in my small sweets arsenal.

Last fall, I made and canned a big batch of applesauce, so jars of that made it into the bags and boxes I gave away around the holidays. At this point, of course, it's too late to start preserving summer and fall fruit, but it's something to keep in mind for next year — and preserved lemons are always lovely.

One of my first criteria when deciding what to make for an edible gift is how far it may have to travel. In addition to filling pretty tins with cookies for my dad (whom I see in person), I fill boxes to send across the country to various far-flung friends, and for them I choose less perishable, sturdier items such as citrus-infused sea salt or a loaf of poppy seed bread. I'll also make things that keep well — gingerbread, for example, can be baked, frozen and made available on a moment's notice, as can a variety of cookies.

For those within shouting distance, I might make a batch of truffles, which should be consumed fairly quickly, or even a special cake, if I'm feeling ambitious and have the time.

It's nice to give books, of course, or a precisely chosen necklace, but it's even more personal to make something with your own hands and ingenuity. In a harried world, taking a few hours out of the rush and stress of life to create from scratch is priceless.

Plus, an afternoon spent firmly planted in my little kitchen, the classical music pealing away on the radio in the other room, and the apartment filling up with good smells is a present I give myself.

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Nicole Spiridakis