Give the gift of homemade food for the holidays

Daniel Neman
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

When you care enough to send the very best, you know that the very best is often homemade.

A box of candy is a lovely gift, and so is a big tin of flavored popcorn. But they just don’t have that personal touch.

To show your friends and loved ones that you care, make them a gift yourself. Homemade food gifts are always appreciated, and they can be simply wonderful.

The ones I made are good. I mean really, really good. And don’t tell anyone, but they are also easy. I mean really, really easy.

How easy? The Slow Cooker Dulce de Leche is literally nothing more than pouring canned sweetened condensed milk into jars, placing the jars in a slow cooker, adding water and turning on the heat.

Admittedly, this one gift does take time until it is done, but you can be off doing other things while it is cooking at a slow and even temperature. It takes about 11 to 12 hours on low heat — you can make it overnight — but I made it on high heat in six hours.

And what I had at the end was honest-to-goodness dulce de leche. If you’ve never had it before, maybe you should make a jar for yourself, too. It’s impossibly rich, impossibly creamy, impossibly delicious. The flavor is sort of like caramel, but it’s somehow better and more intense than caramel.

There are other ways of making dulce de leche that take less time but are more laborious. Traditionally, you slowly simmer together milk and sugar, stirring occasionally, for at least an hour and a half. But that takes a lot of standing at the stove.

The slow-cooker method allows you to set it and forget it for about six hours or so. When it’s done, it can be used in any number of desserts, from pastries to the filling of sandwich cookies to an unbeatable sauce for ice cream. But to be perfectly honest, a lot of people just eat it out of the jar.

It’s that good.

Almost as easy to make as the dulce de leche is Winter Orange Pomegranate Iced Tea. It’s the perfect gift for an iced tea lover like me. It’s iced tea with extra zing and a holiday flair.

Instead of using regular water to make the tea, you begin with water that is flavored with orange, cinnamon and cloves. You steep the tea bags in this water for five minutes before adding orange juice, pomegranate juice and sugar.

Do add the sugar. I don’t like my iced tea sweetened at all, but this one needs it to counteract the tartness of the pomegranate juice.

The hardest part of making this iced tea gift is finding the bottles to put it in. I bought some shaped like soft-drink bottles for $2 apiece, and even as I was paying for them I was thinking “I could just buy soft-drink bottles for $1 and actually have the soft drink.”

I also made a big batch of Caramel Crunch, because it’s so easy and who doesn’t like it? It is the familiar blend of popcorn and peanuts coated in caramel.

Some say that it is impossible to crunch and munch such a homemade treat, that it cannot be made at home. Poppycock, I say.

The popcorn is easy; I used a microwave. But the caramel, which is usually tricky to make, is also easy. You just melt butter with granulated and brown sugars plus some corn syrup, bring it to a boil and add a dash of baking soda. Simple, but it becomes light and crispy and does a terrific job of coating the popcorn.

Finally, I made something called Snowflake Mix, which is just a different form of Chex Mix. This one begins with Rice Chex and Corn Chex, plus pretzels and honey-roasted peanuts. You coat it all with melted white chocolate, and then comes the ingredient of true, unadulterated genius: mint-flavored M&Ms.

It’s like eating a beautiful snowfall, wintry and cool and refreshing. It’s got crunch, it’s got peanuts, it’s got pretzels. It has everything your friends and loved ones will want in a snack.

They’ll be singing “I’m Dreaming of a White Chocolate.”

Snowflake Mix

Yield: 16 servings

3 cups bite-size rice square cereal, such as Rice Chex

3 cups bite-size corn square cereal, such as Corn Chex

11/2 cups small pretzel twists, squares or sticks

1 cup honey-roasted peanuts

24 ounces white chocolate chips or baking pieces

9 ounces mint M&Ms

In a very large bowl, combine rice cereal, corn cereal, pretzels and peanuts. Set aside. Lay out a large piece of waxed paper or parchment.

Melt white chocolate in a metal bowl over simmering water, stirring constantly. Pour melted chocolate over cereal mixture. Stir gently to coat. Spread on waxed paper and sprinkle with mint M&Ms. Allow to cool, and break into pieces. Store in an airtight container for up to 1 week or in the freezer for 1 month.

Per serving: 457 calories; 21 g fat; 11 g saturated fat; 11 mg cholesterol; 6 g protein; 63 g carbohydrate; 38 g sugar; 2 g fiber; 384 mg sodium; 132 mg calcium

Adapted from Midwest Living

Winter Orange Pomegranate Iced Tea

Yield: 6 servings

3 cups water

1 navel orange, cut into 1/4-inch slices

1 cinnamon stick, broken

6 whole cloves

4 orange-flavored or black tea bags (decaffeinated is fine)

1 cup orange juice

1 cup pomegranate juice

2 to 3 tablespoons granulated sugar

In a medium saucepan, combine water, orange slices, cinnamon and cloves. Bring just to boiling; remove from heat. Add tea bags. Let stand, covered, for 5 minutes. Remove tea bags and discard. Strain tea mixture through a fine-mesh strainer; discard orange slices and spices.

In a glass pitcher, combine strained tea mixture, orange juice, pomegranate juice and sugar, stirring to dissolve sugar. Cover and chill for at least 4 hours. Serve over ice with wedges of orange and lime.

If giving as a tightly sealed gift, it will keep in the refrigerator for three days.

Per serving: 73 calories; no fat; no saturated fat; no cholesterol; no protein; 18 g carbohydrate; 15 g sugar; 1 g fiber; 11 mg sodium; 36 mg calcium

Recipe by Midwest Living

Caramel Crunch

Yield: 24 servings

2 bags of microwaved light popcorn

21/2 cups salted dry-roasted peanuts

8 ounces (2 sticks) butter — no substitutions

1 cup granulated sugar

1 cup packed light brown sugar

1/2 cup light corn syrup

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

Preheat oven to 250 degrees. Lightly grease 2 rimmed baking pans or spray with nonstick cooking spray. Place popped corn in very large bowl, discarding unpopped kernels. Add peanuts, and toss to combine.

In a 3-quart pan over medium heat, cook butter, sugar, brown sugar and corn syrup, stirring frequently with metal or heat-safe spatula, until butter melts and sugars dissolve; about 5 minutes. Increase heat to medium-high and bring to a boil. Boil 3 minutes. Remove from heat; stir in baking soda (the mixture will bubble vigorously) and pour over popcorn mixture. Stir immediately and continue stirring until all popcorn is evenly coated.

Divide popcorn mixture between prepared baking pans; spread evenly. Place pans on 2 oven racks. Bake 32 to 40 minutes, rotating pans between upper and lower racks halfway through baking, and stirring occasionally.

Cool mixture completely in pans on wire racks, about 1 hour. Break apart any large clusters of popcorn when cool. Store in tightly sealed containers at room temperature up to 2 weeks.

Per serving: 259 calories; 16 g fat; 6 g saturated fat; 20 mg cholesterol; 5 g protein; 27 g carbohydrate; 20 g sugar; 2 g fiber; 73 mg sodium; 23 mg calcium

Slightly adapted from Good Housekeeping

Slow Cooker Dulce De Leche

Yield: 56 servings

2 (14-ounce) cans sweetened condensed milk

Divide the sweetened condensed milk among 4 (6-ounce) canning jars or 3 (8-ounce) jars. Secure lids. Place in a slow cooker, adding enough hot tap water to cover by 1 inch. Cook on low for 11 to 12 hours or high for 5 to 6 hours, or until thick and richly colored, like dark copper.

To check doneness, use tongs to remove a jar. If the color looks good but you aren’t sure it’s thick, you can open a jar to check consistency; if necessary, secure lid again and return to cooker. When fully cooked, remove jars with tongs. Cool to room temperature; store in refrigerator for up to 3 weeks. The cooking process does not create a vacuum seal, so the jars must be stored in the refrigerator.

Per serving: 61 calories; 2 g fat; 1 g saturated fat; 7 mg cholesterol; 2 g protein; 11 g carbohydrate; 11 g sugar; no fiber; 24 mg sodium; 54 mg calcium

Slightly adapted from Midwest Living