Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Homespun Holidays: Gifts from the Kitchen

    Isn't the kitchen a wonderful place during the holidays? Filled with the wonderful scents of baked goodies, fantastic dinners, and (at least around my place) about half of your guests who want to visit while you're cooking. (If you're evil like I am, you may even put a few of them to work too!) The kitchen need not only be the place where food is prepared, dishes and pots washed, and the staging area for all holiday gatherings in your home. If you simply can not afford to go out and buy all the gifts you wish to give, you can make them in between cooking up a storm in there.
     Some of these projects may require a bit of time, but the results have always proven worth it for me. If you have small children, you will find that some of these projects are ones that you can do with them. Please, please take the time to do so if you can. Among my most cherished memories from my childhood are the memories of making Christmas presents for my extended family. This may also be true for the children in your life.

Salt Clay Ornaments & Baskets

     If you have ever used the play-clay that's out on the market you already know how to use salt clay. There are quite a few variations to this wonderful kitchen creation. The recipe that I am giving you is for baking in your oven however if you add a few tablespoons of cooking oil it can be stored in an air tight container and used for play-clay for several weeks.

     In a large mixing bowl, combine two cups of plain flour, one cup of salt, and two cups of water. Mix this together until a stiff dough is formed. Turn this salt clay out onto a counter top or other flat surface and knead a few times. Once the dough is smooth, you are ready to begin making your ornaments.

     Roll out your salt clay until it is roughly a 1/4 of an inch to a 1/2 inch thick. Thicker then this and your ornaments will crack as they bake in the oven. Using cookie cutters, cut out your desired ornaments. With a pencil, poke a hole where you wish to hang your ornament. Then place the ornaments upon a foil lined cookie tray, making sure they are not touching. If your ornaments are a 1/2 inch thick, you will want to prick them all over with a fork to ensure even drying when they bake.

     Heat your oven to 300 degrees Fahrenheit. Bake for one hour or until the ornaments are golden colored and hard. Remove the ornaments to a cooling rack to allow them to cool enough that they can be handled comfortably. Then paint, spray with varnish (Hair spray can be used in a pinch!), and, when everything is dry, thread a ribbon or a length of yarn thru the hole you made with your pencil. Your ornament is now ready for hanging up or giving.

      If you wish, spices can be added to the salt clay to scent it or food coloring can be added to give the clay itself color. The use of food coloring to color the salt clay is not very effective if you are making ornaments as it fades significantly upon baking. When using salt clay with children, keep an eye out as to how much they may try to eat. While salt clay is non-toxic, it will still give your child a stomach ache if they eat it. (Though I don't know why they'd eat it because it tastes horrid.)

     If you have bowls that are oven safe, they work quite well for the next project. Take your salt clay and cut it into several narrow strips. Then coat the out side of a bread pan (or a bowl) with non-stick spray. Place strips of salt clay over the pan's widest portion on the bottom. Weave thru them a sufficent number of strips of salt clay to allow space for weaving along the narrower dimension of the pan.

     Taking the remaining strips of salt clay, weave around the bread pan until it is covered. When you require strips of greater length then what you have available, it is possible to join two strips of salt clay with a small amount of water and a little kneading. Once the bread pan is covered with salt clay, bake in the oven for an hour or until golden colored and hard. As with the ornaments, this basket can be painted and covered in varnish.

Cookies in a Jar

     Everyone loves cookies. While it may be wonderful to give a tin full of home made cookies as a gift, not everyone has the time to bake them. Here is where a little bit of recycling and a little bit of cooking collide. Take a two quart glass jar and clean it well. (Depending upon the brand of spaghetti sauce you buy, it is possible that you have canning jars in disguise! If you don't have one, canning jars are incredibly inexpensive and available at most grocery stores.) It is a very good idea to soak the label off of your jar while you are cleaning it.

     Measure out the dry ingredients to make a single batch of your favorite or most popular type of cookie. Layer them in your clean and dry jar. Screw the top onto the jar. Cut out a small piece of scrap fabric (or a piece of wrapping paper, but fabric works better) large enough to cover the top of the jar and part of the sides. On a 3 x 5 index card with a hole punched in the corner, write the complete recipe down. With a length of butcher's twine, tie the fabric to the top of the jar, slip the recipe card onto the twine, and then tie with a pretty bow.

     The same principle for Cookies in a Jar can be used for Soup in a Jar. Instead of the dry components for a batch of cookies, fill the jar with an assortment of dried beans sorted by color and then attach a recipe card with directions for how to make bean soup. It is a good idea to layer the beans by color but if you desire a more mottled appearance, don't sort them but rather fill the jar with the beans at random. Always check your dried beans to make sure that your beans are free of stones.

Kitchen Devil

     One of the little things that has proven amazingly popular in my gift giving experience is a kitchen devil. I know this sounds like a funny name for a bit of string with dried chilies attached, but who am I to argue with tradition. Some people like to use just dried chilies while others also add small bundles of cinnamon sticks to the string as well. If you are giving a kitchen devil as a gift, it can be paired with a jar of kidney beans and a recipe for chilli. When doing anything with chilies, be careful not to touch your face and make sure you wash your hands.
     The active agent in chili peppers is the basis of that pepper spray used to chase away muggers, wild animals, and charging drunks. Even though your peppers are dried, the oils are still present and they should be handled with care. There is a wide range of chili peppers that can be used in making a kitchen devil. The variety that I have found most popular are the jalapeno peppers. They are also more mild then some of the other peppers available and generally less expensive as well. Make sure that the person receiving the kitchen devil is aware that they should hang it away from the stove, the sink, or other places where a great deal of moisture is present. This helps preserve the kitchen devil longer.

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