FOOD WISE: Chef Renee’s Annual Gift Guide

Some of Chef Renee’s favorite holiday food gifts include Divinity Candy, Biscotti, Rum Balls, Macaroons and other sweets. (Photo by Chef Renee Morgan)

Last year, I shared several ideas with you for making your own food gifts in a Christmas gift guide. Your reception of those ideas was overwhelmingly positive. In fact, as recently as last month, someone told me that she had kept last year’s guide for the recipes and ideas. With so many great ideas out there, I thought you might find an annual guide helpful.

Every year, people ask me what I’m giving for Christmas gifts. This year is no exception. They know I’ll be giving food gifts. I may give other things, but there will always be food gifts. It kinda goes without saying. I think it’s actually a rule or law of some sort. Any infraction would, most likely, result in fines, penalties and…well, complete anarchy.

So, here I am, in the throughs of holiday baking, both for my clients’ events and my personal gift-giving, or what I like to call catering hell. Oh, relax. I’m kidding, of course. It’s my great pleasure to supply all with wonderful Christmas goodies. (I learned that line from the workers at Disney World, wink, wink.) Pay no attention to my sarcasm. I’ve probably inhaled too much sugar, what with all the fudge, cookie, candy making. Anyhoo, if you happen to be the lucky recipient of a food gift from the cook in your life, thank your lucky stars. That person must care about you a great deal.

It takes a lot of thought, care and frankly, work, to give handmade food items as gifts, rather than simply going to the store and buying something. I find that the extra work is really worth it when I see the recipient’s reaction. It makes my heart happy. Here are some of the treats I’m working on. Enjoy!

 Aunt Sulie’s Divinity Candy

(My Aunt Sulie Mae used to make this candy when I was a little girl. Wait for a dry day. It doesn’t set up too well in high-humidity.)

4 cups sugar

1 cup white corn syrup

3/4 cup cold water

3 egg whites

1 teaspoon pure vanilla

2 cups chopped pecans

In a heavy saucepan over medium heat, stir together the sugar, corn syrup, and water. Stir only until sugar has dissolved. Do not stir after this point. Cook syrup mixture until it reaches 250 degrees F on a candy thermometer, bringing it to a hard ball stage.

While the syrup is cooking, beat the egg whites until stiff peaks form. Once the sugar mixture reaches 250 degrees F, carefully pour a slow steady stream of syrup into the stiffly beaten egg whites, beating constantly at high speed. Add the vanilla and continue to beat until mixture holds its shape, approximately 5 minutes. Stir in pecans.

Using 2 spoons, drop the divinity onto waxed paper, using 1 spoon to push the candy off the other. This may take a little practice because the technique is to twirl the pushing spoon, making the candy look like the top of a soft serve ice cream. If the candy becomes too stiff, add a few drops of hot water. You will need to work fast when making this type of candy. After you spoon the cooked sugar and nuts onto the waxed paper, you’re done. Cool the candies on racks completely. You can store them in an airtight container for up to 2 weeks.

Cranberry-White Chocolate Biscotti

 2 1/4 cups all purpose flour

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

3/4 teaspoon salt

6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature

3/4 cup sugar

2 large eggs

1 tablespoon grated lemon peel

1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1 teaspoon whole aniseed

1 cup dried sweetened cranberries

3/4 cup shelled natural unsalted pistachios

6 ounces imported white chocolate, chopped

Preheat oven to 325°F. Line 3 large baking sheets with parchment paper. Sift first 3 ingredients into medium bowl. Using electric mixer, beat butter and sugar in large bowl to blend well. Beat in eggs 1 at a time. Mix in lemon peel, vanilla, and aniseed. Beat in flour mixture just until blended. Stir in cranberries and pistachios (dough will be sticky). Turn dough out onto lightly floured surface. Gather dough together; divide in half. Roll each half into 15-inch-long log (about 1 1/4 inches wide). Carefully transfer logs to 1 prepared baking sheet, spacing 3 inches apart.

Bake logs until almost firm to touch but still pale, about 28 minutes. Cool logs on baking sheet 10 minutes. Maintain oven temperature.

Carefully transfer logs still on parchment to cutting board. Using serrated knife and gentle sawing motion, cut logs crosswise into generous 1/2-inch-thick slices. Place slices, 1 cut side down, on remaining 2 prepared sheets. Bake until firm and pale golden, about 9 minutes per side. Transfer cookies to racks and cool.

Line another baking sheet with waxed paper. Stir white chocolate in top of double boiler over barely simmering water just until smooth. Remove from over water. Dip 1 end of each cookie into melted chocolate, tilting pan if necessary; shake off excess chocolate. Place cookies on prepared sheet. Chill until chocolate is firm, about 30 minutes. DO AHEAD Can be made 5 days ahead. Store airtight between sheets of waxed paper at room temperature.

 Raspberry Coconut Macaroons

Makes 50ish 1 1/4-inch cookies

14 ounces (400 grams) sweetened, flaked coconut

2/3 cup (130 grams) granulated sugar

3 large egg whites

Heaped 1/4 teaspoon flaked sea salt or level 1/4 teaspoon table salt

1/2 teaspoon almond extract

1/2 pint (6 ounces, 170 grams or 1 1/4 cups) fresh raspberries (if washed, patted very dry)

Preheat oven to 325°F. Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper.

In a food processor, blend the coconut for a minute. Add sugar, blend another minute. Add egg whites, salt and almond extract and blend for another minute. Add raspberries and pulse machine on and off in short bursts until they are largely, but not fully, broken down. (I counted 13 pulses. I might have been a little obsessive, what with the counting.) Some visible flecks of raspberry here and there are great. When you open the machine, you’ll see some parts of the batter that are still fully white while others are fully pink. Resist stirring them together.

With a tablespoon measure or cookie scoop (I used a #70), scoop batter into 1-inch mounds. You can arrange the cookies fairly close together as they don’t spread, just puff a bit. Scooping a little of the pink batter and a little of the white batter together makes them look extra marble-y and pretty.

Bake cookies for 25 to 30 minutes, until they look a little toasted on top. Let them rest on the tray for 10 minutes after baking (or you can let them fully cool in place, if you’re not in a rush to use the tray again), as they’ll be hard to move right out of the oven. They’ll firm up as they cool, but still remain softer and less dry inside than traditional macaroons.

 Rum Balls

(Make these ahead as they get better each day. Yields about 6 dozen.)

1 (12 ounce) package vanilla wafers

1 (16 ounce) package pecan pieces

½ cup honey

1/3 cup bourbon

1/3 cup dark rum

1/3 cup powdered sugar

Process vanilla wafers in food processor until crumbs are fine. Transfer to a large bowl. Process pecans in food processor until finely chopped. Stir into vanilla wafer crumbs. Stir in honey, bourbon and rum.

Shape dough into 1 inch balls. Roll in powdered sugar. Place in airtight container and store in refrigerator up to one week.