Living in a period of austerity poses some problems at Christmas: namely, how do you marry the all-out extravagance of the festive season with belt tightening without channelling Ebenezer Scrooge? When the Co-op conducted their annual Christmas survey this year, they found that 75 per cent of adults were planning to rein in their spending for the season, although most said that they wouldn’t be skimping on Christmas dinner. Another survey, this time by HSBC, found that Britons were planning to spend just under half as much on food, drink and entertainment this year as they were on presents.
But instead of heading to the supermarket for your foodie fix and investing in an overload of packaging and e-numbers, take the green route and make toothsome gifts at home using organic ingredients. ‘I think giving something handmade just shows you that the person has taken the time out of their busy schedule instead of just ordering it online or picking it up from a convenience store,’ says Jennifer Pirtle, founder of craft workshop, The Make Lounge. What’s more, homemade gifts come with a wealth of recycling opportunities, whether it be reusing last year’s Christmas ribbon or sprucing up old jam jars for festive hampers. Here's how to get started.
Perfect for making in big batches and gifting en masse. To make 24, you’ll need 150g of dark chocolate (the higher the cocoa solids percentage the better; anything above 70 per cent will work well) and 50g of unsalted butter. Melt them together and then leave the mixture for 30 minutes in the fridge. Once the dough is firm enough to shape, roll it into balls and dust with cocoa powder, then return to the fridge. You could also top them with dessicated coconut or chopped nuts instead of cocoa, or even add some brandy or rum at the mixing stage, if you have any lingering in the cupboards from Christmases past.
Need to know: A chocolate recipe can be one of the most ethically sound, as Jennifer explains: ‘it’s really easy to do in an organic, Fairtrade way, and a lot of the chocolate actually tastes a lot better [when] you’re using a really rich cocoa base.’ The Raw Chocolate Company does a good line in Fairtrade, cocoa-rich dark chocolates and cocoa powder. Try their Pitch Dark plain chocolate, which has 72 per cent cocoa solids (£1.99 for a 44g bar) and the Organic Cacao Powder, £5.09.
While this recipe works better the longer you can leave the lemons to soak; start now and you should have it just in time for Christmas Day. Take 10 lemons and use a zester or a potato peeler to get all the yellow peel, and put it into a large container with 750ml of vodka. Leave it to ferment for as long as you can. After a week – preferably – boil 750ml of water, and add three and a half cups of white sugar. Turning down the heat and simmer until you’re left with a syrupy mixture. Strain the lemon and vodka mix, add to the syrup then stir well and leave in the fridge for a day or two before bottling. It’s the perfect antidote to gluttonous festive feasting, acting as a digestivo - an after-dinner drink to speed up the digestive process.
Need to know: The key is to buy organic lemons: limoncello makes use of the lemons’ zesty skin, and organic means the skin will be pesticide and wax free. Present in recycled screw top white wine bottles: their clear glass shows off the yellow liqueur to its best advantage.
Condense the flavours of Christmas into one toast-worthy morning treat. Equal parts cranberry sauce and mulled wine, this recipe is surprisingly quick to make, and benefits from a few tasty trial runs to experiment with measurements. Start with 250g fresh cranberries – if you don’t have a local market near you, Tesco and Sainsbury’s both sell organic varieties – and boil gently with 250g raw cane sugar (around two to three minutes). Then, add the zest of one orange (again, organic is best) and stir in as quickly as possible. For a final touch, and to give it a Christmassy twist, add ¼ teaspoon of ground cloves and cinnamon before pouring into sterlilised jam jars. Some preserve, served liberally on a crumpet or muffins, also works well as an alternative to mince pies if serving guests.
Need to know: It’s important to sterilise old jam jars before you re-use them. Heat the oven to 180°C, put the washed jars on a baking tray and leave for around 20 minutes. Make sure you put your preserve in the jars while they’re still hot, otherwise the temperature difference could result in a nasty explosion.
Mature cheese sable biscuits
A moreish accompaniment to the Christmas cheese board, you may need to make an extra supply for yourself. To make 16 biscuits, mix together 100g unsalted butter, 125g of self-raising flour and half teaspoons of salt and nutmeg, until it becomes doughy. Roll the mixture into a log around four centimetres wide. Wrap it in baking paper or foil and leave in the fridge for an hour, then take the log out and cut it into 16 slices. Beat an egg yolk with a little cold water, and lightly glaze the tops of the biscuits. Sprinkle on some finely grated cheese (mature cheddar works well) and bake for 20 minutes in an oven pre-heated to 180°C. As well as cheese, you can top the biscuits with nuts or dust with spices. Like the truffles, this recipe works well in big batches and you can also freeze the mixture until you need it again.
Need to know: All the ingredients can be sourced organically, either from a supermarket or local market. For packaging, try jewellery boxes. ‘Take a white cardboard box that you’d get jewellery in,’ suggests Jennifer, ‘put in a bit of tissue and nestle some treats inside of that.‘
Chai tea kit
A great alternative to the coffee and hot chocolate sets that line cafe shelves at this time of year. Combining a selection of spices and some black tea, homemade chai makes for one delicious present. As well as the tea, either loose or in bags, you’ll need cloves, cinnamon sticks, ginger, black peppercorns, bay leaves, fennel and cardamom pods. American website, Rookie, suggests separating the spices in a compartmentalised container and adding a neat diagram overlay, but you could just as easily fill a glass jar with the spices, building them up with a colourful layered effect. It doesn’t even have to be chai spices: you could fill a jar with layers of nuts and raisins, chocolates, sweets or cookie mixture.
Need to know: Abel and Cole stock all of the spices, bar the fennel and cardamom pods, which you can usually find in a wholefoods shop. They can be quite expensive, ranging from £1.69 for 100g of bay leaves to £3.69 for 25g of Crazy Jack Fairtrade Cinnamon Sticks, but it never hurts to have an extra supply in stock and you could always have a testing session during the making process.
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