Sweet confections play a big role in holiday celebrations of almost every kind. Freshly fried doughnuts are a Hanukkah tradition, and it’s no coincidence that in “The Nutcracker,” the Sugarplum Fairy is usually the biggest star.
Making sweet treats for gifts doesn’t have to involve the elaborate choreography and ample cast of the classic ballet. An evening in the kitchen can produce much-appreciated homemade gifts for every sweet tooth on the gift list.
Gifts from the kitchen offer a special opportunity to thoughtfully personalize a gift. The sister who doesn’t like nuts? Make her a batch of chocolate toffee with crushed candy canes on top instead of pecans. The neighbors who splash Tabasco on everything? Mix a handful of picante peanuts into their candied corn chip crunch instead of plain ones. For the germaphobe who doesn’t want to eat a handful of snacks from a communal bowl, you can shape the Fritos into small mounds for individual praline-sized portions.
Candy-making may seem tricky, but for beginners, there are recipes that don’t require special skills or special equipment like a candy thermometer. Crunchy chocolate toffee crackers, made on a base of saltine crackers, matzo or Graham crackers, requires only a well-lined cookie sheet and a saucepan.
The crackers start with a crispy layer of crackers topped with caramel sauce that is baked in the oven until it, too, is crisp. The residual heat of the caramel then melts a layer of chocolate chips, and before the chocolate hardens, a final layer of toppings is added. That top-of-the-toppings layer is where the giftee’s preferences make a difference. Chopped nuts, small candies, dried fruit or a simple sprinkle of sea salt make the toffee crackers as unique as the recipient.
A similar mix-and-match approach customizes old-fashioned nougat candy. Although it’s a little more difficult and time-consuming to make, its chewy sweetness is a nostalgic treat. Making nougat candy requires a sturdy mixer that can handle 10 minutes of high-speed beating, necessary to incorporate enough air into the candy to keep it fluffy and chewy rather than dense.
Once the nougat reaches that glossy, fluffy (but still sticky; before it sets up, the nougat has the viscosity of thick latex paint) state, it’s time to customize with a mixture of dried fruits and nuts. Dried cranberries, blueberries or cherries add color, while chopped crystallized ginger would be a good addition for someone who likes the combination of spicy and sweet. Almost any kind of nuts can be used, as long as they have been roasted to remove some of the oil, which could break down the airy texture of the nougat.
When working with molten sugar, a short advance preparation beats a long cleanup time. Lining pans with foil and then using parchment paper may seem like overkill, but it prevents a far more arduous attempt to remove rock-hard sugar syrup. That leaves more time for packing the finished product in air-tight tins or zip bags for gifting or sharing.