In the final week before Christmas, we woke up to the smell of yeast bread dough, butter, cinnamon and vanilla and a mother who had been up for hours. Across the countertops and table, snugly tucked in a range of cake pans and glass dishes, cinnamon rolls rose mysteriously underneath blankets of clean kitchen towels.
Though tired from an early start and vigorous kneading of double and triple batches of her beloved bread dough, our mother seemed charged to get the pre-dawn jump on this particular Christmas baking.
Once the rolls, swirled with the darkness of a heavy dousing of cinnamon, were baked to a golden brown (our mom tested them by inverting one pan to check doneness), they were smeared immediately with butter, then a simple vanilla glaze that would melt down into the rolls, sealing them with sweetness.
She wasn’t aiming for perfection in appearance, although they came as close to that as possible. She wanted them to be good.
These pans of cinnamon rolls, wrapped modestly in aluminum foil and decorated with adhesive Christmas bows, were the first homemade gifts I can remember. They were given to neighbors, relatives and friends, and it was as much my mother’s effort as it was the sweet rolls (some of which we got to keep, thankfully) that made their sharing significant. My mother’s early rise, so that the rolls would be fresh (and in some cases, even warm) for gift delivery, showed what the receiver meant to her. My mom’s heart was in every batch of her signature cinnamon rolls.
By the time I was in high school, I was trying my own hand at homemade holiday goodie gifts, spending a couple of dark winter evenings after homework making cookies, toffee and hard candy that I packaged in sandwich bags to hand out to school chums.
My favorite gifts received have been homemade specialties, whether from the kitchens of talented friends who gave me a warm loaf of brioche or a jar of freshly made pesto, to the bags of peanut brittle or homemade jams mailed from home.
In recent years, my homemade holiday gifts have transformed my kitchen into a fruitcake factory, making cakes for certain special recipients. I turn out a variety of cookies and candies for neighbors. And I also make home-cured vanilla, lemon and orange extracts, an easy, no-cook gift for those who love to bake and make desserts (see recipe these pages).
Most people welcome something made or assembled from your own kitchen (as my dad said, food always fits). Another bonus — it will make you feel good. Get creative with ideas from what you like to make (and eat). You could bake mini quick loaves or muffins, or shortbread cookies (which have a long shelf life). Make a soup mix with instructions and gift it with a bag of homemade croutons for topping.
Like the vanilla, certain no-cook recipes work, too, such as herbed vinegars, home-blended spice mixes (such as pumpkin spice or barbecue) or simple candies like holiday bark, that only requires you melt chocolate, spread it out in a slab, and sprinkle it with nuts, dried fruits or crushed peppermint.
If time is short or you don’t want to make or bake something, you could share a favorite recipe on a handwritten card, included in a basket or gift bag with some of the ingredients needed for the recipe.
Or, turning the tables on the beloved bakers or cooks who gift you with their homemade treats, you can fill a gift basket (or mixing bowl) with small gadgets (like a timer or candy thermometer), simple tools (like measuring cups, wooden spoons or spatulas) or kitchen towels to reward and arm them for making future goodies — and possible gifts — from the heart.
Rebecca Howard grew up in Kansas and has written for the Los Angeles Daily
News, the Los Angeles Times and LA Parent Magazine, and currently writes the food blog, “A Woman Sconed.”
Cinnamon Roll Recipe Homemade Vanilla Extract Recipe