It’s that time of the year again. We spend too much, eat too much, and drink too much. For some of us, we try to be a little thrifty and give home made gifts. This may seem like quite the money saver, but any crafter can tell you that this can be a money sink. This week I am going to tackle a few of the home made gifts of choice, and why you might be better off buying it. If, however, your money is worth more than your time, then I can also give a few pointers on saving yourself.
First, I am a professional chocolatier, so I am going to tackle the most obvious, and likely most wasted, home made gift of choice. Sweets! I strongly urge you to only do this if you love spending excessive amounts of time in the kitchen. If you do not, save your pennies and buy something that will likely be more appreciated… booze.
My first tip is to plan accordingly. More is not necessarily better. With the excess of sweets available this season, you really have to stand out in a crowd or you tasty treats are going to find their way on the fast track to the garbage can, especially when the purge happens after New Year’s Day.
If cookies and brownies are your thing, pick 3 to 4 treats that you know you make really well and people have commented on before hand. These should be unique to you. Sorry, but sugar cookies, chocolate chip cookies, and others like that, will be so abundant that yours will need to be laced with ambrosia. If cookies or brownies are the direction you are going to go, make them special cookies that you make, not Pillsbury.
For my fudge and caramel makers, make sure it is out of this world and packaged appropriately. A brick of caramel is hard to eat and dried out fudge is gross. Again, make this something you are very familiar with. Not really the time to test new recipes.
Lastly, for my bread people. Little loaves are best for this. Pick 3 or 4 different types and make mini, easy to freeze, breads. I prefer pumpkin, banana, and zucchini bread myself, but I have made some good apple bread too.
I list those three categories first because they are not my specialty, but my sister is quite the accomplished baker, so we tag teamed our traditional family baskets. My forte is chocolates. I am going to state this now. THIS IS NOT EASY OR QUICK. If you are not willing to commit to the right amount of time and money to make good chocolates do yourself, and your loved ones, a favor and go to a local chocolate shop. Please do not waste your time otherwise.
If, however, you are willing to plan, spend money, and spend time making quality home made chocolates, then I have some good tips for you.
- Plan appropriately. You need to know how many people you are going to make for so you can scale recipes accordingly. You will also need to know for packaging purposes. Think candy boxes, candy cups, and stickers at least. Ribbon is also nice, but to save time I would buy little pre-made bows.This can get expensive quickly, but you can buy bulk if you buy ahead and plan, plan, plan.
- Buy quality ingredients. You can fudge on centers a bit, but your candies will stand out if you buy quality. Most people would rather get a 6 piece box of nice chocolates than 16 pieces of mediocre chocolates. The number one thing you should splurge on is chocolate. You can find plenty of quality chocolate online, and I highly encourage this. Please, for the love of all that is, do not try to use chocolate chips for the majority of your chocolate work. You, and your loved ones, will be highly disappointed, and it isn’t really that much cheaper in the long run.
- Learn how to properly temper chocolate. That will be a good Google search for you. If you are going to spend the time and money on good chocolate, then you need to understand the basics of working it, and tempering is the very basics. It is also why chocolate chips don’t work. The cocoa solids to cocoa fat and sugar ratios are off and make chocolate chips a mess to try and dip with.
- DO NOT PUT WAX IN YOUR CHOCOLATE. We yell at children for eating candles and there you go grating one into their chocolate. Stop it. You were being cheap, trying to do this with chocolate chips, and your grandma told you to make them smooth and shiny you needed to put paraffin wax in it. PFFT. Go back to tip 3. Properly tempered chocolate has the shine and snap you are looking for, without the wax. Bonus, you can temper and retemper chocolate, over and over again. Practice the technique. Its a fancy trick to know and can be really impressive for all your dessert making adventures.
- Buy some good equipment. A digital scale, a digital thermometer, a double boiler or tempering machine, parchment paper, and a cutting mat (I use a fondant cutting mat I bought from Michael’s) are the minimum, as I assume you have cookie sheets and bowls. You save time with the tempering machine, you save money with the double boiler.
- Put aside the proper amount of time to make these. Making chocolate candies can be time consuming. You have to make the centers, roll or cut the centers, then dip them. Cupping and packaging can also take a bit of time. If you are doing all of this by hand, then be sure you have the time to enjoy the process. My best advice is to make all your centers first. You can make a good portion of these up during the week and use the weekend for dipping and packaging. Starting with a clean kitchen Saturday morning, choose your chocolate that you want to dip with first. I like working from white to dark, but the choice is yours. Start tempering your first batch of chocolate. While this process is started, choose all the centers that you will be dipping in that chocolate. Measure and roll, or cut your centers while tempering the chocolate. This is where that scale comes in handy, as you can make your centers all the same weight. You can have everything set up and ready to go when your chocolate is ready. If you don’t, that’s okay. You will likely have to temper several batches of chocolate, which will give you plenty of time to finish cutting and rolling.
- Finally, if you want, you can use dipping forks for your candies. I, personally, do not as I like the little bit thicker coat I get when I use my fingers. I also haven’t included anything about molded chocolates. That is more advanced than the dipping. This can be a messy process. Keep your nails clean and short or use gloves while dipping if you want to save your manicure.
If you do this correctly, you could have a wonderful gift by the end of the weekend without a huge mess. It costs time and money to do though! If your time is worth more to you, spend the money at a chocolate shop. If your money is worth more to you, spend it a chocolate shop instead of cheap ingredients. If you want a stellar gift for friends and family and are willing to plunk down the time and money to say you made it, please feel free to follow the above steps!
I’ll post some of my chocolates next week, as I only just started making my centers today. Please, feel free to share your home made gifts, and don’t cheat yourself. Your time and money are important. If the gift isn’t going to be appreciated the way a hand made gift should be, don’t waste the effort!
Until Wednesday, Ciao!