The homemade gift-making madness continues. Today I’ll give you a bunch of ideas for using herbs to turn regular kitchen staples into thoughtful, easy-on-the-wallet, holiday gifts.
If this is your first visit to the blog – and you’re intrigued with the idea of homemade gift ideas using herbs – you might want to take a look at how to make bath cookies, and yesterday’s post with more versatile gift ideas for busy people.
As with most herbal inspired homemade gifts, these recipes are all wonderful projects to share with your kids. Making holiday gifts for relatives, teachers and friends encourages children to enjoy the giving spirit of the holidays –and takes the focus away from the bombardment of TV ads and store displays that urge them to consume more and more.
When my daughters were at home we always spent at least one weekend day in December in a marathon gift-making frenzy. We did herbal oils, bath salts, cream perfumes, and lots of food-based goodies. Ever since she was about 11 my daughter Rosie has been making the pumpkin pie spiced nuts for all her uncles (scroll down for recipe).
As with the aroma-spritzers described in my last post, the packaging is everything with these gifts. Shop your favorite second-hand stores for unique looking glass bottles and jars, or you can purchase glassware in various shapes and sizes and any number of kitchen stores and even health food stores.
Personally, each year I get a little more fed up with the holiday gift hype in this country. An afternoon spent concocting some goodies to give away goes a long way toward improving my outlook on this December tradition!
If you’re feeling the same, you might want to have a crack at some of the following recipes. The great thing about most of these is that they’re quite malleable. They’re just guidelines really – meant to springboard you into designing your own distinctive culinary gifts.
So let’s get creative and have some fun in the kitchen.
Infusing herbs into a cooking oil bumps up the flavor, transforming a run-of-the-mill cooking ingredient into a gourmet addition to any dish. The possibilities are endless of course.
Start with your choice of cooking oil – organic if possible – olive is a good standard, but you could go with sesame oil, macadamia nut, or whatever is your current favorite.
Decide on what herb(s) you’d like to use to flavor your oil. Most people like to go with a savory herb or combination, like rosemary, marjoram, savory, tarragon, thyme, chili pepper, caraway seed, basil, parsley and even garlic. You could also go spicy with allspice, anise seed, cardamom, fennel seeds or ginger root.
These are just suggestions – perhaps you have another favorite herb or spice that would make a super special oil? Just remember to always use dried herbs for making oils because fresh herbs have too much water content.
Take a large glass jar (canning jars work well) and sanitize it with boiling water. The size of your jar will depend on how much finished product you are hoping to have. If you’d like to fill four 8-ounce bottles with herbal oil, for example, you would need 32 ounces of oil – or a quart jar.
Be sure your jar has air-dried completely before adding the oil! Any water mixed in can make the oil turn rancid quickly, or it can cause contamination – something you definitely don’t want to be giving to your friends and loved ones!
The traditional method is to fill your jar about a quarter way up with dried herbs of your choice. Pour oil over the whole thing – all the way to the top – and cover tightly. Let the herbs infuse into the oil for 2-4 weeks before straining out the herbs. (Use a piece of cheesecloth draped over a handheld strainer and strain your now-fragrant oil into a fresh, clean jar.)
Since you might be in need of a finished product, like, tomorrow – here is the quickie method for infusing an herbal oil.
Heat the oil gently in a double boiler or in a bowl placed over a pan of boiling water. The temperature should not exceed 180 degrees. Place your herbs of choice into the oil and continue to heat gently for about 10 minutes. Turn off the heat and allow your oil to cool completely. Strain as described above.
Pour the resulting fragrant oil into pretty bottles. Make attractive labels listing the ingredients and the date and affix to the bottle or tie them on with ribbon or twine.
All kinds of dishes can be pepped up by using an herbal infused oil – suggest it for making salad dressings and marinades, on roasted vegetable, for sautéing and stir-frying vegetables.
This is the same principal as the herb infused oils – but you can use both fresh and dried herbs in vinegars. The fun thing about herbal vinegars is that you can make them look even prettier by including sprigs of fresh herbs, whole chili peppers, berries, etc. in the finished product.
Just as with the oils, you can choose any herb you may fancy to flavor your vinegar. If you’ve got some growing out in the garden, or wild in a nearby field, those might be the perfect choice. As for the vinegar, any type will do, with each type lending its own particular flavor.
White vinegar is probably the easiest choice. Apple cider vinegar offers its own medicinal benefits, but the color might be too dark to show off the beauty of the finished product. Other options are rice vinegar or white wine vinegar. I wouldn’t use balasamic or red wine vinegar since their flavors are already quite strong.
Again you’ll be starting with a sterilized jar. Use about 3-6 springs of fresh herbs or three tablespoons of dried herbs or spices per pint of vinegar. Cover the container tightly and let the flavors infuse for at least 10 days. (I know, I know – you’ve got to get on this one right away if it’s going to be ready for this winter’s holiday.)
When you’re ready, just strain out the herbs as described in the herbal oils section. Add some sprigs, or pieces of whole herbs and spices to your final container, label, and your vinegar is good for gifting!
Herbal vinegars are so versatile – and great to make all year long, especially in summer when the herb gardens are flourishing.
If you’d like more details, including suggestions for which herbs to use for flavoring specific foods as well as instructions on how to sterilize the jars, check out this educational sheet from the University of Oregon Extension. (It’s a PDF, so you will need Acrobat or a similar program to download these instructions.)
Infusing herbs into honey can add flavor and spice, and it can even turn ordinary honey into a therapeutic substance (well, more therapeutic that it already is!)
In fact, an enterprising herbalist in my area turned this idea into a business by creating a line of herbal and medicinal honeys. I keep her Respiratory Relief Honey in the pantry and add it to my favorite teas whenever I get that throat tickle.
But, she’s on a sabbatical now and not making and selling honeys. So we’ll have to create our own! And what better time than now when you can make extra to give away as gifts?
Start with a good quality raw honey. Skip the Glorybee and other cheap varieties. If you want a quality product you’ve got to use quality ingredients. But this gift doesn’t have to kill your bank account. Your herbal honey can be packaged in pretty little jars as small as 2 ounces.
As with all of these infused recipes, the herbs you choose depend on your own taste and your intention for the finished product. Lavender honey is fragrant and delicious as is a honey infused with rose petals. You could make a holiday spice honey with aromatic spices like cinnamon, cardamom, clove, orange peel and anise.
Or you can even do a garlic honey – a teaspoon a day keeps the doctor away.
The amount of plant matter you add to the honey also depends – on the herb itself and on intensity of flavor you desire. So, if you’re making a delicate rose honey you might want to fill the whole jar with rose petals, but if you’re making spicy honey, just a few teaspoons will probably do just fine.
Warm the honey until it is liquidy. Place the desired herbs in a large jar and pour the warmed honey over them. Stir to mix in the herbs and let this infusion steep for three days to a week. Some herbalists suggest turning the jar upside down once a day to stir it all up.
Taste the honey after a few days. When you are satisfied with the flavor, it is ready. This method is good when using herbs that you can just leave inside the honey – such as rose petals or bee balm. Even garlic honey can be made this way. (Okay, I know garlic honey sounds pretty weird, but you should really try it. Not only is it unique on the palate, but it can also help to flush out a cold or fever.)
If you’re using harder spices or strong tasting herbs to flavor your honey you might want to try Method 2 to avoid the hassle of straining out the sticky honey.
Chop or grind the herbs into fine pieces and place them in a reusable muslin tea bag, or tie up in a piece of cheesecloth. Put the bag right into your jar of honey and set the jar in a sunny window or another warm location. Perform the taste test every few days and remove the bag when attains the desired flavor.
You can then gently warm the honey and pour into smaller, decorative jars for gift-giving.
If you need a sweet little jar of herbal honey, but you don’t have a week to let it infuse, try this. (Adjust proportions to suit your needs.)
Pour two cups of honey into the top of a double boiler and warm gently. Add 1-2 cups of chopped or ground herbs (it’s easier if you put them into a cheesecloth or mesh bag first). Heat the mixture at about 180 degrees for ten minutes. Pour your beautiful herbal honey into a decorative jar.
Let’s say you need that herbal honey for a hostess gift for the dinner party you are attending in two hours. Here’s the quick (but not so dirty) method.
Stir four drops of essential oil into one cup of honey, stir thoroughly. Pour into a fancy jar, tie a ribbon around it and Voila! An aromatic and useful gift.
Whichever method you use, you could garnish your finished creation with some whole herb pieces or flowers if desired. Lavender honey could have a spring of lavender, spiced honey a cinnamon stick, etc.
My friend Melinda is a hit every year with her gift of “Melinda’s Magic,” an herbal salt blend made with her own secret recipe. She packages it in cute little amber glass shaker bottles. My daughter Rosie loved it so much that she begged Melinda to give her some as a going-away gift when she went off to college.
Melinda’s blend does contain some actual salt, but adding in the herbs and spices improves the flavor and allows one to use less actual salt. And salt-free spice blends can taste just as good. Try the following ideas – or experiment and come up with your own signature “magic” spice blend.
Be sure to use ground, dried herbs in these recipes. For best results place all ingredients in a grinder or food processer and whiz together so they are all the same consistency.
3 tablespoons marjoram
3 tablespoons savory
2 tablespoons thyme
2 tablespoons garlic powder
2 tablespoons kelp powder
1 tablespoon basil
1 teaspoon cayenne
10 tablespoons salt
5 tablespoons white pepper
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon cloves
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon crushed and ground bay leaf
1 teaspoon sage
1 teaspoon parsley
1 teaspoon rosemary
Pumpkin Pie Spiced Nuts
This article just wouldn’t feel complete unless I added in this final recipe. It’s the one that Rosie makes every year for her uncles and male cousins. Usually it all gets eaten up before the uncles even get out the door. The first time we made it we thought it would turn out like individually spiced nuts – but it’s actually a little more like a spicy peanut brittle.
8 ounces dry-roasted peanuts (or substitute almonds!)
½ cup pecans
½ cup walnuts
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 teaspoon water
¾ cup sugar
1 tablespoon pumpkin pie spice (store-bought or see below to make your own)
¾ teaspoon salt
Mix together the egg and water and toss with the nuts. Combine sugar, salt, and spices and toss with the nuts until they are well coated. Spread the mixture in a single layer on an oiled cookie sheet. Bake at 300F for 20 to 25 minutes. Break up and allow to cool before packaging in jars or holiday gift bags.
Pumpkin Pie Spice
(Use powdered spices)
5 tablespoons cinnamon
4 teaspoons ginger
2 teaspoons clove
2 teaspoons nutmeg
2 teaspoons allspice
I’d love to hear your thoughts or recipes for herbal-inspired homemade gifts. Feel free to share in the comment section.