This year Nate and I decided to make Christmas gifts for our friends and family. If you’ve ever thought of doing the same, I hope the pictures below will inspire you! The weekend before I had two teeth extracted we squeezed about a week’s worth of fun into two days. We had a memorable time choosing recipes, gathering ingredients, and making interesting stuff – like homemade Jagermeister, Kahlua, lavender lemon curd, and saltine toffee – for the first time.

Here’s the book we used: Vegan Food Gifts by Joni Marie Newman. If you have a remote interest in making gifts for people (and canning) get it immediately. Not only does she give you great recipes for home-baked goods, but there are instructions for caramel sauce, pizza mixes, truffles, margarita mix, and homemade spirits. Most recipes also include recipe cards that you can copy and cut to include with your gifts. And if you need something to package the stuff in? She teaches you how to fold truffle boxes and make gift bags. It’s really everything you need!

Let me disabuse you of a few notions about making Christmas presents right off the bat. First, it is not (much) cheaper. We spent about as much money buying (first-class: vegan, organic, fair-trade, and decent liquors) ingredients to make these presents as we would have ordering gifts online. Second, it takes a lot of time. Between procuring ingredients and executing recipes, we easily spent three whole days. (Like, AM to PM.) It’s definitely something you can do in a weekend, but you may want to reserve the whole weekend.

Case in point: this is a picture of one of our supply tables.

And here are some of the jars. As you’ll see later, we ended up needing many more than these…

Third – and here’s the good part – it’s actually quite easy and fun. Once you’ve gathered your library of ingredients, most recipes come together in mere minutes. For the most part, it’s just combine and pour over, or mix and pour into. The soups? Layer a bunch of ingredients in jars or bags. The spirits? Put a bunch of herbs and spices into jars and pour alcohol over; shake once a day for a week and then strain. How simple is that?! Also, know this – canning is easy. Nate and I had both always been afraid of canning, even though our friends Sarah, Jessica, and Jacquie said it was simple. Hey, guess what? We should have listened! We made buffalo sauce and lavender lemon curd from scratch, and I’ve gotta say, the hot water bath canning was probably the easiest part of the recipe.

We made Kahlua first. If I remember correctly, we made a simple syrup with purified water and vegan cane sugar and then added 2 ounces of espresso powder (that’s a lot) and a vodka. Here’s the swampy mixture.

I split some organic, fair-trade Indian vanilla beans and put them in the jars.

And then I poured the mixture over. Easy-peasy, right?! Once capped, they just needed to be shaken once a day for thirty days.

After kahlua, we made “Ginger Snap” with Beefeater and the homemade Jagermeister. Here those are with a few bags of pizza dough mix.

Isn’t the ginger snap pretty?

A different view of the beginning.

Vanilla mint vodka joins the crowd.

I took a break to sit down and make my vanilla extract. I have seen a lot of recipes for vanilla extract online and they are, quite frankly, embarrassing. Too many people seem to think it’s okay to make “vanilla extract” by soaking three vanilla beans in 750ml of vodka for a month. Folks, I use three beans per 59 – 120ml (2 to 4 ounces) and let them sit in a cool dark place, shaking every few days, for months and months. I also use high-quality craft bourbon for the best flavor. (I used pure grain Everclear once and it was not successful.) I gotta say, my vanilla extract is pretty dang delicious. I only make six to ten 2 to 4 ounce bottles per year, and the recipients are almost always professional cooks. No offense, everybody – but for your average home cook or cookie recipe pure vanilla extract from the store will work just fine! (Just don’t ever ever ever use artificial vanilla or that wretched “Mexican” vanilla thing made mostly of corn syrup and/or propylene glycol. Gross.)

Vanilla extract joins the crowd.

Meanwhile, Nate made hot sauce from fresh peppers. This is one of the rare instances in which he momentarily did not wear his thick yellow gloves. Note to hot sauce makers: thick yellow gloves are essential!!! Here’s the mixture after he pushed peppers through a fine sieve, before he added vinegar.

Whisking in an owl apron and yellow gloves.

There was a bit more involved in making buffalo sauce, but we’re skipping ahead to the exciting canning part. Note: we did not use an out-of-the-box fancy canning set. We used a large stock pot filled most of the way and set the cans not on a special canning rack but rather (carefully!) on a regular old steamer basket. The only special canning investment that we made was in a $7.00 box of essential elements: canning tongs, a lid grabber, a funnel, a scraper. Those were helpful.

Processing on our makeshift (but totally effective!) apparatus.

Afterwards, Nate listens excitedly for the tell-tale pops.

Meanwhile, Perl is adorable.

Quality control: gazing at a mixture.

Buffalo sauce canned, the collection grows.

Remember how I mentioned we needed more jars? We needed LOTS more jars.

So many jars, in fact, that when we took a lunch break on the second day, we squeezed ourselves onto the end of the table.

Victoria Vegan vodka sauce on rotini and swiss chard with their colorful ribs.

I extended lunch with a Perl cuddle break.

What a sweet baby.

Nate’s next adventure: lavender lemon curd with fresh organic lemons. He was excited to make this recipe for his momma, and picked out a special jar for her.

A careful cook, stirring in a cornstarch slurry, waiting for the lavender flowers to suspend in the mixture.

We also made margarita mix and sweet and sour mix. This is one or the other, with fresh Florida citrus picked by us a week or so beforehand.

Lazy Lua slept.

Later that night I felt I hadn’t accomplished as much as I would have liked, so I whipped up some niter kibbeh (seasoned Ethiopian butter)…

…and berbere (an essential Ethiopian spice mix). Here are the whole toasted spices before being ground…

And here it is afterwards! I used a very clean coffee grinder. Thank you, sweet Nate, for cleaning my coffee grinder so carefully with vinegar and water. I know it was a pain in the butt. You did a great job. You made berbere possible.

I also decided to make saltine butter toffee, since the recipe seemed so easy. Again – easy! All of this stuff is fast and simple! There is no excuse to do otherwise.

White chocolate swirl, almond sliver, crushed candy cane.

A close-up.

At the end of two days: a counter full of goodies.

Our record player, all covered up.

A collection close-up.

More goodies. Left to right: Nate’s lemon lavender curd, margarita salt, taco/fajita seasoning, seasoned TVP crumbles, popcorn topper, sweet and sour mix, margarita mix.

Finally: making everything pretty with labels and recipe cards!

We enjoyed “shopping” from our store of homemade gifts as we assembled gift baskets and bags.

I think handwritten labels lend a nice touch.

Here’s an example of a finished basket. This one went to Nate’s sister and brother-in-law: margarita salt, pizza topper spice blend, pizza dough, chick’n noodle soup mix, margarita mix, jagermeister, buffalo sauce, and ginger snap.

His brother and sister-in law got kahlua, jagermeister, chick’n soup, holiday spiced rum, taco/fajita seasoning, and seasoned TVP.

So the danger of this post – which I realised when I started it – is that some of my friends who haven’t received their homemade gifts yet may read all about ’em. Since they can’t know exactly what they’re getting, I hope they can be at least a little surprised. And if you’re a lucky gift-getter, feel free to let us know what you really liked and didn’t-like-so-much so we can adjust for next year. We’re open to suggestions and new ideas, since we’ll probably be doing this again! Vegan Food Gifts is our new favorite.

Merry Christmas, friends. Love to you and yours. More coming soon.