Festive Food Gifts: Staying close While Keeping Your Distance, Guest Post by Deborah DeBord

Mason jars, small and large, wrapped in bright red and white.

There is an extra layer of consideration these days before you give a festive food gift.

In the past, did you share your famous minty choco-chip cookies? Your remarkable banana-nut bread? Your yummy curried yogurt dip for veggies? However can we do that during these days of limited physical contact? How ‘bout we rustle up some ways to share our favorite foods in a different way.

Non-perishable food gifts have been our mainstay for friends and family living far away. And now, they serve well for people closer by. They can be inexpensive to moderately spendy and still be festive and sassy:

* A drawstring muslin bag filled with simmering spices (cinnamon stick, whole cloves, cracked nutmeg, peppercorns).

* A starter kit for brownies that need only egg and butter added.

* An antique jar of layered dry beans with a recipe for French Market Nine-bean Soup.

* Iron Skillet Cornbread, you could even package it with an iron skillet!

* A cute small jar of ground barbecue rubbing spices that you put together yourself.

You will find the ingredients for all these here.

Other ideas: Homemade spicy and sweet mixed nuts. A homemade hot cocoa mix with attached candy canes. And let’s not forget pets…a wound-up scrap yarn ball with catnip in the center.

Let’s walk through the process with things to consider in putting it together:

* Imagine your gift . Is it something you would like to receive? Is it affordable for the number of folks you will be remembering? Will it be manageable to put together and deliver?

* Plan the contents. Is it truly non-perishable with a six-month shelf life?

Does it require three or fewer, commonly available ingredients for your friend to add?

* Plan the prep notes. Be brief and clear and suggest a sensible order.

* Check for accuracy. Allow your prep notes to “cool off” for a day before re-reading for mistakes or holes.

* Include yourself as a starring ingredient. Why did you choose this prep when thinking of your friends? Might you have a related story or amusing memory connected to it?

* Consider your “delivery system”. If passing the gift on in person, a beautiful glass jar topped with an interesting cloth swatch or small handled paper gift bag might be appropriate. Whereas, if mailing, unbreakable wrap is always better…a drawstring muslin bag. a festive plastic zipper bag. A padded mailing envelope.

* Put it all together. Lay out all ingredients and prep notes to be included in assembly-like manner on table or countertop. For example, Will it be layered in a pretty jar? Will it be willy-nilly in a zipper bag? Will it have additional decorative thrills?

* Consider the delivery. If you are handing your prezzie out to multiple friends at the same time, will the piece hold together as a unit? Is it attractive and inviting for your friend’s kitchen counter?

Okay, okay, now for the reveal. I have probably already made most of the mistakes for you. Here are some things that went a bit wonky over the years. We are so grateful to have friends and family that do not expect perfection and can laugh along with us.

1973 The hippie homemade granola was toasted in a thin layer on baking sheets. Needing dozens of jars of the gift, we stacked all manner of pans, sheets, and tins in the oven for the low and slow drying toasting process. Success. Until we had to shovel-scoop the granola off the sheets and off the pans. Little chiplets flew all over the kitchen for us to find for weeks. Puppy loved it, though.

1988 We sent out a teaser promising friends and family a special combination of spices for homemade chai. We had not taken into account the expense of such a project. So in the future, we made individual re-usable muslin bags instead of pint jars. Whew, that broke the bank.

1997 In an effort to highlight our local organic cornmeal (corn grown, toasted, ground on site), we created zipper bags of the dry ingredients for Iron Skillet Cornbread. Accidentally substituting baking soda for baking powder is a common error, but not one to make in a gift headed for a friend’s table. Huge and cartoonish puffy loaf in the end. Thank goodness we caught the mistake early on.

2003 Our beautiful layered dried bean mixture in antique pint jars was just too gorgeous to cover up. We thought to hand out the prep notes with the jars. About half the community members ended up losing the paper before getting home, so had no idea what to do with it.

We were answering e-mail and phone calls for weeks.

Here are my ideas for this year’s Festive Food Gifts:

6 Herb and spice blends for gifties and for yourself

A fragrant blend of good herbs or spices makes a though tful, welcome gift. Surely you will keep some for yourself. They are festive in small, clear spice jars with just a bit of curly ribbon. Even though you can find them pre-mixed on store shelves, making them yourself is much more personal and tons fresher. They should be stored up to six months in a dark, cool pantry.


Use to marinate olives, to cover cream cheese for a quick cheese ball, as a finish for soups, as a boiling bag to freshen kitchen odors, in a sachet for your knickers drawer.

Crumble and mix in more or less equal or desired proportions:



French tarragon




cracked fennel



Use for beans and grains, rice dishes, winter veg soups, Ethiopian stews, cornbreads, and as a rub for meats and fish.

Grind seeds, then mix in all other spices:

1 teaspoon fenugreek seeds

1/2 cup dried Serrano chiles

1/2 cup paprika

2 tablespoons salt

2 teaspoon ground ginger

2 teaspoons onion powder

1 teaspoon ground cardamom, from pods

1 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/2 teaspoon garlic powder

1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon ground allspice


Use in Asian recipes and with poultry, fish, grains and rices.

Mix equal portions and grind to a fine powder. :

star anise

Szechuan peppercorns

fennel seed

ole cloves

cinnamon pieces


Use with grains and beans, Caribbean preparations, anything wanting a Jerk flavor, fish, and poultry.

Grind whole spices, then add and mix the rest:

1 1/2 teaspoons whole allspice

1 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger

1 teaspoon whole coriander seed

1 inch of cinnamon stick, broken

1 tablespoon sweet paprika

1 tablespoon dry basil

1/2 teaspoon dry thyme


Use as a rub for meats, fish, and poultry; sprinkle on grilling veg; add to tomato-based sauces for street tacos; add to oil for stir-frying; add to soups and stews.

Combine and store:

1/3 cup hot chile powder (ancho, New Mexican, or blackguajillo)

1/2 tight-packed cup brown sugar

1/3 cup ground cumin

3/4 cup ground coriander

2 tablespoons coarse sea salt

1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper


For use on grilled meats, fish, and vegetables. Guess the movie?

Toast seeds and grind. Add other ingredients and mix to store.


3 tablespoon cumin seeds

1 1/2 tablespoons whole cloves

1 tablespoon yellow or black mustard seeds

other stuff:

3 tablespoons smoked Hungarian paprika

2 tablespoons mildly smoked Kosher salt

2 tablespoons sugar

1 tablespoon cayenne pepper


In 1959Mrs. D took a few shots at my Crayola-colored map of the United States. “You can’t have brown and pink next to each other. And look at the green and blue. Everything clashes. It’s just not right.” Ross squinted around her sensible shoes from his vantage point on the floor, pretending to pick up fallen papers. He grinned large and winked. He was the popular one, so I felt good. Twenty years later, my first kitchen was loaded with all things blue and green.

Odd combination, you say? Don’t let the chile and chocolate thing put you off. You’ll be intrigued and left wanting more.

The dry ingredients can make a festive gift for a friend.

Mix together in a large bowl:

3/4 cup sifted all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 1/2 cups granulated white sugar

1/2 cup sifted Mayan cocoa powder a blend of Belgian cocoa, hazelnut, chile, etc. available at


pinch salt

1/4 cup good chocolate chips (I would say Ghiradelli if I knew how to spell it)

Mix together in a small bowl:

3/4 cup melted butter

3 eggs, lightly beaten

2 teaspoons good vanilla extract

1/2 cup pecan quarters

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Prepare a nine-inch square baking pan with butter/flour.

Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and blend well, but kindly. Turn into the baking dish and level the surface.

Bake at 350 for 40-45 minutes. Will seem a little damp, but it is done. Cool thoroughly before cutting

Makes 16 brownie-sized cakes.

Cook’s tips and tricks: These rich cakelettes would prefer to be on the small side, with dairy close by…vanilla whipped cream? ice cream? a glass of milk?


When things start to chill off and crisp up in October, I turn my face and kitchen-aching limbs toward the fire and yearn for a soup companion. And since we have been starting many preps with Stonebridge onion, garlic, tomatoes, and peppers, this is a wonderful transition into all that is utumn. A longtime favorite of visitors to the French Market in New Orleans, nine-bean soup never really seems to contain exactly nine beans. Originally, cook would include salt pork or ham hocks in place of the meat choices that appear here. This version seems a little healthier and lets all the beans’ flavors come through to be recognized. Vegetarian and vegan modifications are a snap and taste savory in a different direction. We mix up a few gallons of the beans about once a year and keep them handy in the bean room.

2 cups nine-bean soup mix (see below)

2 quarts water or stock of choice

3 bay leaves

1 teaspoon mixed Italian herb

1 large onion, any color, peeled and chopped

2 tablespoons good-tasting extra-virgin olive oil

2 peppers, choice of heat and color, trimmed, seeded and diced

2 plump cloves garlic, peeled and minced

1/2 cup white wine

1 pound Andouille sausage, sliced or lean sugar-cured ham, cubed

1/2 to 3/4 teaspoon sea salt

1 pound tomatoes, peeled if desired and chopped

Sort and wash 2 cups of the bean mix. Place in a large soup pot with a lid. Cover with water two inches above the beans and soak overnight. Drain beans in a colander and rinse. Add two quarts fresh, cold water or stock and bring to an exasperated boil. Add the bay and herbs. Reduce heat to a thoughtful simmer and partially cover for 2 hours, or until beans are tender. The black beans will tender up last.

In the meantime, sauté the onions, peppers, and tomatoes in olive oil over medium-high flame till tender. Add the garlic and sauté for one more minute. Add the wine and reduce till evaporated. Add the sausage or ham and sauté until everything is done and melded.

Add sausage mixture and remaining ingredients to the bean pot and simmer 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add hot broth or water if needed.

Makes two quarts and is yummy with cornbread

Cooks tips and tricks: Never add tomato or salt to beans until fully cooked. Use the quality of wine that you would drink at table.

Nine-bean Soup Mix contains equal portions of dried yellow split peas, dried black beans, dried red beans, dried pinto beans, dried navy beans, dried Great Northern beans, red lentils, dried green split peas, dried black-eyed peas and barley pearls. This mix is a clever way to remember all your friends and co-workers during the holiday season without breaking the budget. It’s the food gift that is a departure from the usual sweets and can be consumed long after the holidays when we are looking for something to get us back on the healthy track. I make one trip to the health food store where these beans are sold in bulk. I don’t bother to weigh each item, but I make sure that I have equal amounts of each. Then I mix them in a trash bag and scoop out 2-cup portions into self-sealing plastic bags along with a copy of the recipe. An even more festive choice is a pint glass jar with curly ribbon around the neck. With a minimum of effort and not very much money, I have created attractive gifts for dozens of my friends.


K Cowboy (so help me, that was his name) packed a tight trail wagon. His voice and hands were rough as sand, but his biscuits and breads were light as angel feathers. His coffee, always hot, and the speckled blue enamel cups, always plentiful. His granny’s iron skillet, from bear-trapping days, had been his constant companion and workmate. So the day he chucked it at the rattler, leaving two skillets where there had been one, ended in dark clouds, indeed. The wrangler, the skinny one with seven fingers, thanked my cook friend for his life, but the cornbread would never be the same.

K Cowboy would mix this directly in his 100-pound flour sack, using the weather and his mood to guide proportions. You can use a bowl. This is his town version of a trail favorite.

Dry ingredients for your gift:

1 cup corn meal

1 cup all-purpose flour

4 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

Giftee then adds:

1 cup milk

1/4 cup safflower or vegetable oil

1 egg, lightly beaten

3 tablespoons maple syrup

1 cup whole kernel corn

2/3 cup walking onions, white part only, minced

minced fresh hot peppers to taste

1 cup grated cheddar cheese

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Butter a small iron skillet or a round 9-inch pie pan. Combine all ingredients. Pour into pan and bake 25 minutes. Bread will sound hollow when thumped and be toasty brown on top.

Serves six to eight cowpokes

Cook’s tips and tricks: Take advantage of what is on offer. Throwing any of the onions, shallots, scallions, or sweet garlic into this bread along with any of the peppers, makes a scrumptious dish, indeed. And together with any of the beans or squashes will complete the protein. Leftover breads with eggs or milk should be refrigerated. Tightly closed plastic will sweat, so baker’s paper or foil is better.

All from Picked at the Peak, copyright 2020, by Deborah DeBord, Ph.D, prepared for Hadley Institute.  copyright 2020.

If you would like to hear the full audio and take a look at a transcript, as well as printable recipes, please go to


Select discussion groups to sign up for global access.  Then select the Crafting Circle group.

There are other groups to investigate, like What’s Cooking, Tech it Out, travel, exercise, and lots more.

The site is chock-a-block full of other resources.  So give yourself the gift of some time to wander about.

All the best,


Deborah is the author of Adaptive Cooking for the Visually Impaired from Cooking With Feeling and Other Useful Senses, NLS DBC 13021.

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