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Gifts from the kitchen can wrap up holiday shopping lists

| Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2012, 8:57 p.m.
Several hand made gifts of food from the McGinnis Sisters store in Monroeville Saturday, November 3, 2012. Heidi Murrin Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
Funnel Cake hand made gift from the McGinnis Sisters in Monroeville Saturday, November 3, 2012. Heidi Murrin | Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
Amaretti brownies, hand made by McGinnis Sisters store in Monroeville Saturday, november 3, 2012. Heidi Murrin | Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
Mama's Minnestrone ingredients in a hand made container by McGinnis Sisters store in Monroeville Saturday, November 3, 2012. Heidi Murrin | Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
Ingredients for 'mama's minnestrone' hand made gift from McGinnis Sisters store in Monroeville Saturday, November 3, 2012. Heidi Murrin | Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
Jambalaya in a Jar hand made by the McGinnis Sisters store in Monroeville Saturday, November 3, 2012.
A hand made cappaccinno food gift made by the McGinnis Sisters store in Monroeville Saturday, November 3, 2012. Heidi Murrin | Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
Monster Cookies Jar from Shaina Olmanson's “Desserts in Jars'
Cinnamon Coffee Cake Mix from Shaina Olmanson's “Desserts in Jars' Heidi Murrin | Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Sometimes, the best presents aren't found at the mall. In fact, they're as close as your kitchen.

Homemade food gifts are a great way to wrap up your holiday shopping, especially when they are presented in festive containers that make the contents seem even more special. They're easy, inexpensive and fun to create. And there's no better way to send a greeting with your personal touch than by packaging a batch of cookies, a favorite snack mix or your special homemade jam and giving or sending it to friends and loved ones.

The possibilities are endless.

Karen Novak, events coordinator and cheese buyer for McGinnis Sisters, Monroeville, enjoys gifting with homemade food items. Besides the typical cakes and cookies, her recipes-to-go collection includes instructions for homemade minestrone soup, Jambalaya mix and a family hot-cocoa recipe she makes every year.

“People are so busy now, and making gifts actually takes less time than searching the Internet or driving to the mall and waiting in long lines and getting stressed,” she says. “We can give some of ourselves to each gift we make.”

Shaina Olmanson wrote a book about the pleasures of “Desserts in Jars: 50 Sweet Treats that Shine” (Harvard Common Press, $16.95). Her collection of recipes includes one chapter devoted to mixes that make tempting gifts. They include recipes for a Cinnamon Coffee Cake, White Chocolate Spice Cookies, Campfire Bars, Espresso Brownies, Hot Chocolate, Monster Cookies and Cranberry-Walnut Quick Bread. Corresponding printable labels are available for the mixes at her website — The ingredients are meant to be layered, with a few other additions, such as eggs and butter, to be added by the recipient when preparing the end product.

Olmanson is a mother of four, a photographer and a blogger who says giving food as gifts is personal to her and her family. Her grandmother and aunt started the idea by giving others the jams and jellies made from their gardens.

“I love the giving nature of jars, how they pass between hands and homes,” she says. “Every time I cook, I am looking to give a piece of myself to someone else.” She says she has seen an increase in those who share her interest in reaching out to others with meaningful gestures of kindness.

“There's been a turn to where we're looking for more ways to give more from the heart,” Olmanson says. Jars serve as durable containers that ship well.

Jan Miller, an editor for Better Homes & Gardens, edited a special publication for the current holiday season, “Food Gifts: 136 Recipes and 65 Ideas to Wrap Them Up.” The magazine ($9.99) contains a wealth of information, including other handy containers that work as well as jars for packaging your holiday gifts. Decorated tins, plastic containers, new or vintage boxes, carryall bags and foil pants are other options.

“There are so many ways to add embellishments to everyday containers to make them unique,” Miller says. “Find items of interest, such as gadgets from the kitchen store, or flea-market finds such as an antique spoon and attach them to the food gift for a special touch.”

Here are a few of her common-sense tips for do-it-yourself gift-givers:

• Make ahead or bake ahead: Most cookie dough can be frozen for 4 to 6 weeks. When carefully packaged and frozen, everything from cupcakes to yeast breads can be baked up to a couple of months before giving.

• Clear the kitchen of any clutter and make room in your refrigerator, freezer or cupboards for completed gifts.

• When selecting home-canned goods gifts, avoid food-safety worries by opting for jellies, jams and preserves or items in the pickle family. Before decorating jars, use a bit of vinegar to polish the jars until they sparkle.

• If you plan to mail homemade gifts, match the gift with the recipient's weather. Send nothing perishable for warm-weather locales unless you invest in appropriate packaging.

If creating a mix in a jar, use a paper cone or funnel to layer each ingredient into a wide-mouth jar. After each ingredient, gently press the layer down with a utensil that has a flat bottom. Place flour or granulated sugar in the jar first to prevent these ingredients from sifting through layers of coarser ingredients.

• For decorating containers, have craft items available such as twine or colored kitchen string, permanent markers, decorative-edge scissors, paper punch, craft glue, ribbons in assorted sizes and patterns, and scrapbooking paper.

Jambalaya in a Jar

From Karen Novak, McGinnis Sisters

1 cup long-grain white rice

1 tablespoon dried parsley

1 tablespoon beef bouillon granules

1 teaspoon salt

3 tablespoons minced dry onion flakes

1 tablespoon dried basil

1 teaspoon Cajun seasoning

2 bay leaves

Mix the ingredients and place in a decorative jar or a baggie, and then in a giftware jar or tin.

Provide the following instructions with the mix:

To prepare from the gift mix:

1 bag Jambalaya mix

3 12 cups water

1 can (14.5 ounces) fire-roasted, diced tomatoes

1 can (8 ounces) tomato sauce

1 pound smoked sausage, cut into 14 inch slices (use Andouille for a traditional New Orleans flavor)

12 pound medium-size, cleaned and deveined shrimp

Green onion for garnish

In a large Dutch oven, combine the Jambalaya mix, water, tomatoes, sauce and sausage, and bring to a boil. Cover, reduce the heat, and simmer for 20 minutes.

Add the shrimp and cook for a few minutes more until the shrimp are pink.

Discard the bay leaves, garnish with green onion and enjoy.

Cappuccino Mix

From Karen Novak, McGinnis Sisters

1 cup chocolate drink mix

34 cup powdered creamer

1 teaspoon cinnamon

12 cup instant coffee

1 cup granulated sugar

Cinnamon stick for garnish

Mix the ingredients and place in a zippered plastic bag, then insert the bag into a giftware-type mug. Garnish with a cinnamon stick or a potholder, which can be used as a coaster.

Provide the following instructions with the mix:

To prepare from the gift mix:

14 cup Cappuccino Mix

8 ounces boiling water

Combine the Cappuchino mix and boiling water, stir and enjoy.

Funnel Cake Mix

From Karen Novak, McGinnis Sisters

4 cups flour

3 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons cinnamon

Combine the ingredients in a large bowl, and place the mix in bags or decorative jars or containers. Accent the gift with a kitchen utensil such as a funnel, spatula, etc.

Provide the following instructions with the mix:

To prepare from the gift mix:

Oil for frying funnel cakes

1 large egg

34 cup milk

1 cup Funnel Cake Mix

Confectioners' sugar for coating

Pour the oil into a large skillet to a depth of 1 inch; heat to medium-high.

Mix the egg and milk and add the funnel cake mix, stirring until smooth. Hold a finger under the opening of a small funnel while filling it with batter, then, allow the batter to pour into the hot oil in a spiral pattern.

Fry the funnel cakes for 1 minute, turn and fry until golden. Drench in confectioners' sugar.

Mama's Minestrone

From Karen Novak, McGinnis Sisters

12 cup dry split peas

1 cup dried kidney beans

8 beef bouillon cubes

2 teaspoons dried basil

2 teaspoons dried oregano

2 teaspoons dried parsley

1 tablespoon salt

1 teaspoon black pepper

2 cups elbow macaroni

Layer the ingredients except the macaroni in a wide-mouth, 1-quart canning jar. Add a layer of plastic wrap, then add the macaroni.

Provide the following instructions with the mix:

To prepare from the gift mix:

Minestrone mix

16 cups water

1 pound sweet Italian sausage

4 medium-size carrots, diced

4 medium-size ribs celery, diced

1 cup chopped onion

2 cans (28 ounces each) diced tomatoes

Remove the macaroni from the Minestrone mix and set it aside.

Place the remaining ingredients in a large soup pot. Add the water and bring to a boil; simmer for 1 hour.

Saute the sausage after removing the casing, and drain. Add the carrots, celery and onion, and saute for 5 minutes. Add the veggies and sausage to the soup pot. Add the diced tomatoes, and simmer for 30 minutes.

Amaretti Brownies

From Karen Novak, McGinnis Sisters

23 cup cocoa powder

1 cup flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

14 teaspoon salt

12 cup crushed amaretti cookie crumbs

34 cup granulated sugar

12 cup brown sugar

12 cup chocolate chips

Layer the ingredients in a wide-mouth, 1-quart canning jar.

Provide the following instructions with the mix:

To prepare from the gift mix:

1 jar Amaretti Brownies mix

1 stick softened butter, plus more for greasing pan

4 large eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla

2 tablespoons milk

Confectioners's sugar, for garnish

Heat the oven to 350 degrees.

Mix the contents of jar with the butter, eggs, vanilla and milk in a medium-size bowl. Pour into a prepared brownie pan, and bake for 30 minutes.

When cool, dust with confectioners' sugar

Cinnamon Coffee Cake Mix

From “Desserts in Jars”

2 cups flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 12 teaspoons ground cinnamon

12 cup cinnamon chips

1 cup sugar

Vanilla-bean seeds scraped from 1 vanilla bean pod

12 cup chopped pecans

Mix the flour, baking soda, baking powder and cinnamon in a medium-size bowl. Place in a 1-quart jar. Top with a layer of cinnamon chips. Mix the sugar and vanilla-bean seeds and add as a layer in the jar. Top with the chopped pecans.

Provide the following instructions with the mix:

To prepare from the gift mix:

Butter and flour for greasing pan

8 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened

2 large eggs

1 cup sour cream or Greek-style yogurt

Cinnamon Coffee Cake Mix

¼ cup whole milk

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour a 9-inch-square baking pan. Mix the butter, eggs and yogurt in a large bowl until well blended. Stir in the jar of Cinnamon Coffee Cake Mix, and then slowly stir in the milk.

Pour into the prepared pan and bake for 30 to 35 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Remove from the oven and let cool slightly. Serve warm.

Monster Cookies

From “Desserts in Jars”

12 cup granulated sugar

1 teaspoon baking soda

12 teaspoon salt

2 14 cups rolled oats

34 cup candy-coated chocolate candies or chocolate chips

12 cup firmly packed light-brown sugar

14 cup chopped walnuts

Mix together in a small bowl the granulated sugar, baking soda and salt. Pour into a 1-quart Mason Jar. Top with a layer of half of the oats. Add the candies in a layer, and top with a layer of brown sugar. Top with a layer of the remaining oats and then a layer of walnuts.

Provide the following instructions with the mix:

To prepare from the gift mix:

34 cup smooth or chunky peanut butter (not natural)

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 large eggs, lightly beaten

Monster Cookies mix

Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Mix the peanut butter, butter, vanilla and eggs in a large bowl. Add the jar of Monster Cookies mix and mix well.

Form the dough into 2-inch balls and set on a parchment-lined cookie sheet 2 inches apart. Bake for 12 to 14 minutes, until the tops of the cookies begin to brown. Allow to cool completely on a wire rack.

Yields 24 large cookies.

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