Ask Chef Phyllis:
It’s been awhile since I made homemade gifts, such as scented pine cones, zucchini-nut breads, and salted nuts, for Christmas. But I’m really finding that gift-giving has gotten out of hand. It’s frustrating and loses meaning. I’d like a good recipe for salty or spicy-sweet nuts to put in a glass jar that’s pretty and tastes good without a lot of white sugar. Can you help?
—Mary Lou Branda from Boca Raton
What makes homemade gifts from the heart so much better? A box of cookies, flavored oil or vinegars, a jar of sweet and spicy nuts are all gifts that make it easy to feel the love. I also appreciate that I get to experience this feeling twice: once in making it, once in giving it. For me, it’s that personal touch. And it makes a magical, joyful moment.
There was a time when only homemade gifts were considered acceptable. A fellow blogger that I admire asked me if I had any ideas for them, and I said I do.
Where I live, pinecones abound. I make either scented pine cones presented in red mesh bags for city friends or peanut butter and sunflower seed pine cones for kids who like to feed birds. No recipe is needed, just some ingenuity.
The favorite gift suggestion I gave to her was for sweet and spicy nuts in a beautiful glass jar. This can be a wide-mouthed Mason jar as long as you decorate it festively. These are healthier than store-bought nuts, since you can choose the sweetener. And, of course, it’s decorative and thoughtful.
Another dazzling gift of joy is homemade, low-sugar preserves because you get to choose the best organic seasonal fruit available. These make a wonderful presentation in vacuum-sealed, pantry-ready, sparkling jewel-cut jars that are made for Christmas giving. A favorite of mine is no-added sugar, three-variety autumn pear preserves with a whole star anise pressed in the top. It looks and tastes amazing! (But that’s another post.)
The best of these homespun gifts is that whoever receives them will love them and remember who made them—and who gave them—for years to come. Now, on to the nuts.
Healthy Sweet and Spicy Mixed Nuts
½ cup plus 2 tablespoons honey
1–2 tablespoons warm water
1 teaspoon cumin
½ teaspoon each cinnamon and fresh grated nutmeg
½ teaspoon Kosher salt
¼ teaspoon cayenne
1 lb. pecans or mixed nuts of your choice
1 tablespoon additional salt, such as Himalayan pink salt, chunky white salt, or chunky gray sea salt, for sprinkling over the nuts (optional, but I love the salty-sweet taste the best)
Special equipment: quart-size Mason jar with lid
- Preheat oven to 350°F. Warm honey and water together (do not allow it to boil). Mix well and cool to room temperature.
- Mix spices (including Kosher salt) together. Add to honey mixture. Add more warm water if needed to thin the honey. Mix very well.
- In a large bowl, combine honey-mixture and nuts. Toss well until nuts are thoroughly coated and no honey syrup remains in the bowl.
- Bake for 5 minutes. Remove from oven and separate with a fork (they will clump together as the honey melts).
- Continue baking for 5 additional minutes. Remove from oven and sprinkle with sea salt, if desired.
- Cool thoroughly before packing into Mason jars. Top with lid and decorate with holiday paper and ribbons.
Image from iStock/Oleandra9.