Things the best edible holiday gifts will always do: warm hearts, fill bellies, fuel holiday travel, get shared, spark conversation, inspire your loved ones to start making their own granola (or hot sauce or challah or macaroons), and disappear, leaving only happy memories.
Here are 43 Genius Recipes for edible holiday gifts—along with mostly handy gifting ideas and intel—that have been passed from cook to cook for years and, in some cases, decades. Yes, three of them are chocolate cakes, but each one is perfect for a different sort of gifting experience. I've provided color commentary.
If you want to be a very popular guest—or host, or coworker or friend, make this shortbread. Though it’s as simple to mix together as any cookie, there’s a world of tender, crisp, and crumbly textures inside, and a haunting flavor that doesn’t quite know if it’s sweet or savory. And, in my experience, it doesn’t matter—you don’t need to justify it as one thing or another. Every time I set it out, I explain nothing—at first. Hungry lurkers inevitably swarm and empty the plate, without stopping to wonder what genre of snack they're eating.
This is one of the more rewarding ways to spend 10 minutes. As you stir sesame seeds in a sticky syrup, suddenly the water disappears and a dry crystalline layer of sugar pops to the surface. At Estela, chef Ignacio Mattos’s curve-shattering restaurant in New York City, they roll scoops of caramelized white chocolate in the candied seeds, but the seeds are also just as good sprinkled over ice cream or paletas, or topping a brownie or a slice of cheesecake—anywhere you want a little crunchy sesame-flavored twinkle.
While most granola recipes call for shuffling the oats around every 10 minutes or so in the oven, with this genius technique there's no need—and in fact you should not, as I learned from Alanna Taylor-Tobin, pastry chef-turned-blogger-turned IACP award-winning cookbook author. By baking granola pressed between two baking sheets and never stirring, you allow the sticky, slow-toasting oats to fuse into one big crispy, browned sheet—like a very thin, very good granola bar that you can break up into whatever size clumps you desire.
Of course make-ahead breakfast casseroles are genius. They let you knock out all the thinking and doing the day before, when you have time and space to putter. And they feed a hungry crowd much more smoothly than flipping fried eggs or rolling omelettes for eight (don’t do it). The trouble is: In their ingenious practicality, these casseroles can often feel utilitarian at best. They’re a breakfast you can cut into neat rectangles, with none of the dramatic pouf of a Dutch baby or tactile glee of a pull-apart monkey bread. This particular casserole, however, is spilling over with glee. It comes from celebrity comfort food lover/known prankster Chrissy Teigen's cookbook Cravings, and she injects some very welcome doses of fun. The most important of these is the topping, which is salted, buttered, toasted Frosted Flakes. You will want to palm this up like trail mix. No surprise Teigen writes, “I am so proud of this dish I could cry.”
“What’s important is the temperature of the butter,” Raij says. “It should be plastic and cold.” Raij was initially inspired by a snack at Roscioli delicatessen in Rome that combined salty Spanish anchovies with curls of cold vanilla butter. “I was so enchanted with it, I came home and put it on everything now,” Raij said. Her take on Roscioli’s dish, a deliberately plain cracker with a thin tube of vanilla butter and a very good-quality Spanish anchovy, has been on the menu at her NYC restaurant El Quinto Pino ever since, and she riffs on it often for parties, big and small. Adapted from Alex Raij and El Quinto Pino restaurant.
This spicy little number might look like regular old cayenne. But make no mistake: It's the most powerful new player you can add to your salt-and-pepper rotation—for your eggs or anything else at risk of being humdrum. Humdrum stops here! Unlike cayenne—a fairly straightforward, wall-of-heat experience—this mysterious red powder is tangy and salty and smoky, too, as well-rounded as singular-seeming spices come. That’s because it’s distilled straight from Sriracha, the beloved squeezy bottle of hot sauce with the rooster on it (although how good would it be made with the homemade stuff or this fancy Gochujang Sriracha)?
This process is almost embarrassingly simple—put cheese in a food processor with wine, a garlic clove, and black pepper; blend. But you do need to cue up your common sense. If there are any rinds that look waxen or suspect (or taste too funky for you), scrape them off. And while a whole wheel of molten Camembert could whip right in, no problem, any harder, aged cheeses like Parmesan should be chopped or grated first. You’ll know.
This is the single most genius thing you can do to a tomato. They’re best and most outrageous when made with ripe Romas or other meaty types, but as Wizenberg points out, slow-roasting will bring out the tomato in even the pale and off-season, if you feel the need. Make a lot. They keep for a week in the fridge, and are just fine in the freezer.
This charming loaf may look like a pound cake, and act like a pound cake—and travel well and make sweet gifts like a pound cake. But it's quite a different little number, and thanks to a slew of hidden perks—it's better.
This recipe began with Nik Sharma's affection for Nutella—the wonders of which he discovered after moving from Bombay to Cincinnati for grad school—and it ends with a streamlined one-bowl, crisp-chewy cookie that happens to be gluten-free. It tastes both everything and nothing like your perfect chocolate chip.
This is the only path to homemade dulce de leche that lets you easily get in to taste and peek and tweak, without also requiring regular or constant stirring—the best of all worlds, the happiest medium for control freaks and tinkerers who nonetheless don't want to be tied for hours to a pot.
This light, moist, lemony cake is genius for so many reasons: It’s powerfully puckery. It’s got both more fresh lemon juice and zest than you’d expect or normally see in a recipe, and the flavor holds up under heat. It’s given even more flavor because it’s soaked—really soaked—with a lemon and sugar syrup that seeps into the cake slowly and provides moistness, a little more keepability, and a lot more lemon intensity.
This chocolate chip cookie variant should get its own special bookmark in your brain right now, for the next time you need a last-minute party snack or cookie swap entry or a gift for pretty much anyone (including yourself). Conveniently, the brittle packs up well in a big jar for holidays, birthdays, and sugar-fueled road trips and plane rides. It's also quite friendly to swap-ins for the nuts and chocolate—coconut? chile? pretzels?—if you need a place to set yourself free.
This is a flawless, crisp-chewy, endlessly malleable olive oil cake blueprint you will want to pocket, even without the crazy-sounding addition of olives. But you should really suspend disbelief and give them a try. Charlotte Druckman, the mastermind behind this recipe, has also supplied us with some equally genius variations (minus the olives): cacao nibs with salted, roasted Marcona almonds and toasted pistachio meal with shiro miso.
If you can make scones (or muffins or banana bread), you can make these sparkly, gloriously poufed cinnamon rolls—no waiting for yeast to do its thing. It’s all because the tiny Violet Bakery didn’t have the space to proof yeasted doughs, so founder Claire Ptak had to get crafty with a quick bread-style technique inspired by cookbooks from the 1950s. Don’t expect these buns to precisely recreate the yeasty flavors and pull-apart texture of a slower-risen roll—but they achieve something magical in their own right. And they do a remarkable job of hitting all the other notes of a classic cinnamon roll: the poofy, soft innards and cascading, buttery crust, the sparkle-dusted first bite giving way to sticky-sweet goo.
This recipe, adapted very slightly from Early Bird Foods' best-selling Farmhand's Choice Granola, is like muesli after a vampy makeover. Olive oil, maple, brown sugar and coarse salt form a rich, shaggy crust on wholesome innards like oats, pecans, and coconut shards.
Make an XXL batch, package it in cute jars for all your coworkers or cousins, and include the recipe—there will be rabid freak fans converts.
A crisp almond cookie for all your holiday gifting, swapping, and impressing needs, from Sweet Miniatures by Flo Braker (Chronicle Books, 2000).
This recipe is the aggressive, no-more-excuses shove that you need to start baking your own bread. It will only take you 4 hours of intermittent attention, and won't require a starter nor any equipment you don't already own -- and it will rival your favorite bakery's.
No professional equipment required to be total inspiration to those around you—extra thoughtful points for wrapping in a reusable Bee's Wrap (a.k.a. bread fresher-keeper).
Meet your new go-to birthday cake, bake sale cake, dinner party cake, late night snack cake—for when the fridge is at its barest and you need chocolate cake now. (It's also vegan and parve and dirt cheap, but you wouldn't know unless we told you.) This isn't the richest, most chocolatey cake—if you like, you can amp up the chocolate by swapping in coffee for the water, or adding more cocoa. But you don't need to. It's a different animal: light, delicately strung together with cocoa, and not terribly sweet.
A genius technique for guarding against dry biscuits. Food scientist and baking expert Shirley Corriher says the dough "should be a wet mess" -- a moist dough steams up into fluffy biscuits in a hot oven, and a low-protein self-rising flour like White Lily will make them extra tender, if you can get it. Note: Corriher, ever the scientist and tinkerer, published one version of this recipe in CookWise in 1997, and a fairly different one in BakeWise in 2008. We tried and loved both, the newer one edged out. Note: If you can't find self-rising flour, substitute 2 cups all-purpose flour plus 2 3/4 teaspoons baking powder, and increase the salt to 1 teaspoon.
Give with a side jar of jam (or honey!), or wrap in a suggestive tea towel.
On creating this cake, Nigella Lawson explains, "I remember very strongly wanting to create what we call a loaf cake—and what is generally called a pound cake Stateside—that had a richness and squidginess of texture that this form of cake normally doesn't major in." And she did.
Step aside, red velvet. It just so happens that the deep pink earthiness of a beet is surprisingly well suited for bittersweet chocolate. Crushed beets are also an inexpensive way to make a cake achingly moist, nearly molten. And you don't need all that red food coloring after all.
These are the blondies you'll become known for. A few notes: The key to their flavor is the heavy dose of vanilla -- don't skimp, and don't use artificial extract. Err on the side of under-baking. These are delicious cold from the freezer or fridge (and easiest to slice that way).
p.s. Can you imagine unwrapping these lidded, nesting mixing bowls to find blondies hidden in the innermost bowl?
In this variation on a technique from the 1300s, mulled wine gets the sangria treatment -- and stops simmering the booze away. In addition to sipping the sweet, spiced red wine, Anne Willan suggests, "Ypocras, diluted with an equal amount of water, is perfect for poaching whole pears or peaches, and a teaspoon of Ypocras in a glass of sparkling white wine makes an unusual Kir."
Consider this the holiday season's lovable anytime cake -- breakfast, snack, and show-stopping dessert all in one. Serve it with coffee for breakfast, with whipped cream for dessert. Gift it; freeze it; portion it out for a bake sale. Feel free to swap in booze-soaked raisins or darker sugars, whole wheat or olive oil -- this cake is virtually indestructible.
The dough is one simple shortbread that you use for both the crust and the topping (which will make you wonder why you'd ever make them separately). You can make the entire thing in about an hour, including clean-up, and yet somehow it comes out looking like a Byzantine mosaic. Even though it's perfect for holidays, you should entrench this in your repertory year-round. As long as you have butter, sugar, and flour, you can use whatever jams and nuts are in your pantry.
Yes, that lovely peekaboo pie pan is in our Shop and will be loved long after the tart is gone.
No cinnamon, no cloves -- this sauce is straight up apple, mainlined to your belly.
It comes from Judy Rodgers' must-own Zuni Cafe Cookbook and -- as with everything she serves at the San Francisco institution -- she keeps it smart and simple, balancing the apples only as needed with small amounts of salt, sugar and apple cider vinegar. She throws in an optional bonus dessert recipe too -- a charlotte, which is basically apple pie, without having to make the pie. It's light, as apple desserts go, and it would make a great cooking project for kids.
Of all the cookies you will bake and eat during the holidays (and beyond), this is the one people will remember. They're fine and sandy like a sablé, but with a friendly, soft chew, a bit like American chocolate chip. They're made up of well-salted, well-buttered cocoa dough, with generous pockets and wisps of chocolate feeding through. "I've seen World Peace Cookies made with peanut-butter chips, with cinnamon, with icing, and with gluten-free flours. I've seen them huge and small," Greenspan said. "I don't think you can do much to make them better and happily, there's little you can do to ruin them. Except overbake them." If in doubt, pull them out early -- they'll firm up as they cool.
We've misunderstood mustard greens this whole time. (We were thinking greens, when we should have been thinking mustard.) Instead of setting them loose in a salad bowl and willing everything else to keep up, try capturing and channeling their heat, and bottling it -- as mustard green harissa. Use it anywhere your food needs livening up. Terry recommends incorporating a few tablespoons when cooking couscous and grains, and using it as a flavor base for soups, stews, and marinades. We also liked it in dressings for roasted vegetables.
There's one surprisingly simple thing you can do tonight (or tomorrow, or Saturday afternoon) that, all winter long, will give you the soup-making power of homemade vegetable broth in—snap!—the time it takes to make hot water. Use it for simmering any bean or grain, as the base for your soups, stews, braises, sauces, and risottos. Or, if you’re feeling under the weather, it will make a soothing broth with hot water, all on its own.
A wholesome, 4-ingredient DIY grenadine for better drinks at home -- plus a gutsy technique for juicing a pomegranate without seeding first. (Wear an apron -- or wear black -- to be safe from stains, but this juicing technique is surprisingly contained.) Stir it into sparkling water (along with a splash of lemon and lime juice for a DIY Shirley Temple), pour it over ice cream and yogurt and cake, explore your bar. This recipe halves well.
Pack up the grenadine (or the vegetable bouillon or green harissa above) in reusable mason jars. They will not be returned.
This recipe is one part of a master brownie recipe Medrich designed to use whatever chocolate you have in the house -- but the best version happens to be the one that only requires cocoa powder. By taking out the chocolate, with its inevitable fat and almost-inevitable sugar, Medrich was able to control and fine-tune the proportions of both. When she added back in the fat (via butter), the middles stayed softer. When she added back in granulated sugar, the crusts were shinier and more candy-like. Any cocoa will work, but natural (not Dutch process) will taste more richly of chocolate.
How to make even better cornbread? Treat it more like a biscuit (or scone, or pie crust). The same cold pockets of butter that make a scone crunch outside and billow through the middle do good things for cornbread too. You can bake them into miniature loaves or free-form like scones, with a shorter baking time.
Alice Medrich, chocolatier and author of scads of baking cookbooks, is famously a little wild with her desserts. She developed this recipe not with the standard bag of sweetened, angel flake coconut in mind, but those wide, sloping unsweetened shavings, often called coconut chips and sold at health food stores nowadays. Naturally, Medrich offers two even more exotic upgrades: 1) Instead of painting a little chocolate shoe on the bottom of each macaroon, why not jam a piece of chocolate in each still-hot cookie and watch it melt? 2) For that matter, why not lace it with lime zest and shower it with cinnamon? Who are we to say that's not a macaroon?
Oh, you like these studly gluten-free macaroons? How about Alice Medrich's genius book on baking with alternative grains to go with them?
The whole-grain, gluten-free, no-knead, no-mess, life-changing loaf of bread. Psyllium seed husks are available at naturalfood stores or online. Other than the husks, which you can use in powder or intact form but are otherwise non-negotiable, this bread is adaptable to your mood and your pantry. Swap in like for like (nuts for nuts, grains for grains, and so forth), and your life can change a little bit differently every time.
Turn any winter squash into this holiday season's go-to gift, breakfast, and dessert -- an entertaining triple threat. Virant adds it to ice cream and pumpkin bars, or you can stir it into plain yogurt and oatmeal, smear it on toast and cake. As you might expect, this packs well and makes a handsome gift at any scale you want to make it. It also freezes well, and keeps in the fridge for a few weeks. Because it's low in acidity, it's not safe for water-bath canning.
Here's a fun party trick: Put out a platter of jewel-shaped pieces of this fudge, and make people standing nearby guess what's in it. In this recipe, tofu is used as a substitute for the cooked-down milk in traditional kaju barfi, which shaves off cook time and makes an easier-to-work-with confection that doesn't need to be kneaded or rolled out.
A last-minute 2-ingredient DIY host gift (or party trick for your own New Year's celebration) -- either way, you'll start 2015 making an impression. You can use any sugar -- this recipe calls for superfine, which you can make yourself by blasting it for few pulses in your food processor. But you can also use fancier sugars if that's more your style. Later in the year, you can pull the same trick out again and again. Make honey sugar cubes to set out at a fancy tea, or grind lavender (or chamomile or orange peel) with sugar, then add water. Mix in cinnamon or maple or bourbon for a brunch with big pots of coffee. Make vanilla or almond cubes with the kids for hot cocoas. Cut them in triangles or diamonds or Xs or Ys to reveal that the baby is a boy or girl, or buy elaborate candy molds to make them shaped like flowers or hearts or dinosaurs. Pack them in a mason jar or mug or pour-over situation for more cohesive gifting.
The only gift that can make a bottle of Champagne look even more thoughtful (stowing them in cork canisters doesn't hurt, either).
A bran muffin that's somehow both more wholesome and more delicious than the rest.
How to turn 2 ingredients into perfect biscuits, in less time than it takes to drink your coffee. Extra genius points: The formula is so simple, you'll probably never need to look it up again.
Serve them with butter and jam. Or honey. Or dress them like a Mainer, as Hamel recommends: Split them and dribble with cream before topping with berries and whipped cream (Are you counting? That's 3 creams!). Or embed a sugar cube doused in orange juice in each biscuit before baking, a Southern trick for a sweet, melty core that Hamel also likes. Or add herbs or bacon or cheese.
This isn't just genius for a vegan chocolate chip cookie or in spite of it. This cookie, which comes from Ovenly founders Agatha Kulaga and Erin Patinkin, can rest entirely on its own merits: its soft-bellied, chewy, caramelly-crisp-edged, rippled and ringed and puddled with melty chocolate, haunting, well-salted, incidentally vegan merits.
A DIY hot sauce you can make from the bottles and cans in your pantry all year round, with just one step. It also makes a great last minute edible gift, and will keep for up to 6 months in the fridge.
In this genius challah recipe from Stir author and Sweet Amandine blogger Jessica Fechtor, agitating the dough comes not from kneading but in the form of a fold: a straightforward move (like the thing you did to all your socks last laundry day), which you'll do just five times, over long, inactive stretches. Time makes the bread, really—you just keep it organized.
A Few More Recipes from The Food52 Community:
These cookies are pesky to make (separate baking of the "caps" and "stems," painstaking gluing with icing, individual sprinkling with poppy seeds) but the finished product is beyond gift-worthy and downright adorable. Warming cardamom, cinnamon, and cloves with sweet citrus peel and honey will delight recipients every bit as much as their cute appearance.
This whimsical combination of cinnamon quick bread and scones requires some time-intensive layering, but the effect when it's sliced into is well-worth the extra effort. Toss in any flavoring that strikes your fancy: espresso, orange zest, chocolate chips. It's delicious as-is or with that special something that gives it that inimitable holiday cheer.
These sweet fruity truffles pack up perfectly for an edible gift, and the outer layer of crushed pistachio helps keep the chocolates intact (as well as adding crunch, flavor, and that one-of-a-kind green hue). Making and sending travel-friendly chocolate truffles is a holiday tradition just waiting to happen.
Gluten-free folks can have a tough time around the holidays. Most cookies, cakes, and other cheerful confections have their roots in wheat, and those who can't tolerate it can't join in any of those reindeer games. Thankfully, these melt-in-your-mouth butter biscuits call for rice flour, which contributes a lovely golden-brown finish that can be hard to achieve with gluten-free flour blends.
The dough for these crisp, gooey oat strusel bars definitely pulls its weight: it's the base for the bar itself as well as the tender streusel on top. Use any fruit you like, but darker fruits like blackberries and plums provide an eye-catching contrast.
Got a genius recipe to share—from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Perhaps something perfect for beginners? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected].
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