When you care enough to send the very best, you know that the very best is often homemade. Homemade food gifts are always appreciated, and they can be simply wonderful.
The ones I made are good. I mean really, really good. And don't tell anyone, but they are also easy. I mean really, really easy.
How easy? The Slow Cooker Dulce de Leche is literally nothing more than pouring canned sweetened condensed milk into jars, placing the jars in a slow cooker, adding water and turning on the heat.
Admittedly, this one gift does take time until it is done, but you can be off doing other things while it is cooking at a slow and even temperature. It takes about 11 to 12 hours on low heat — you canmake it overnight— but I made it on high heat in six hours.
And what I had at the end was honest-to-goodness dulce de leche. If you've never had it before, maybe you should make a jar for yourself, too. It's impossibly rich, impossibly creamy, impossibly delicious. The flavor is sort of like caramel, but it's somehow better and more intense than caramel.
There are other ways of making dulce de leche that take less time but are more laborious. Traditionally, you slowly simmer together milk and sugar, stirring occasionally, for at least an hour and a half. But that takes a lot of standing at the stove.
The slow-cooker method allows you to set it and forget it for about six hours or so. When it's done, it can be used in any number of desserts, from pastries to the filling of sandwich cookies to an unbeatable sauce for ice cream. But to be perfectly honest, a lot of people just eat it out of the jar.
It's that good. I also made a big batch of Caramel Crunch, because it's so easy and who doesn't like it? It is the familiar blend of popcorn and peanuts coated in caramel.
Some say that it is impossible to crunch and munch such a homemade treat, that it cannot be made at home. Poppycock, I say.
The popcorn is easy; I used a microwave. But the caramel, which is usually tricky to make, is also easy. You just melt butter with granulated and brown sugars plus some corn syrup, bring it to a boil and add a dash of baking soda. Simple, but it becomes light and crispy and does a terrific job of coating the popcorn.
Finally, I made something called Snowflake Mix, which is just a different form of Chex Mix. This one begins with Rice Chex and Corn Chex, plus pretzels and honey-roasted peanuts. You coat it all with melted white chocolate, and then comes the ingredient of true, unadulterated genius: mint-flavored M&Ms.
It's like eating a beautiful snowfall, wintry and cool and refreshing. It's got crunch, it's got peanuts, it's got pretzels. It has everything your friends and loved ones will want in a snack.
They'll be singing "I'm Dreaming of a White Chocolate."
Makes 16 servings
3 cups bite-size rice square cereal, such as Rice Chex
3 cups bite-size corn square cereal, such as Corn Chex
1 1/2 cups small pretzel twists, squares or sticks
1 cup honey-roasted peanuts
24 ounces white chocolate chips or baking pieces
9 ounces mint M&Ms
1. In a very large bowl, combine rice cereal, corn cereal, pretzels and peanuts. Set aside. Lay out a large piece of waxed paper or parchment.
2. Melt white chocolate in a metal bowl over simmering water, stirring constantly. Pour melted chocolate over cereal mixture. Stir gently to coat. Spread on waxed paper and sprinkle with mint M&Ms. Allow to cool, and break into pieces. Store in an airtight container for up to 1 week or in the freezer for 1 month. Per serving: 457 calories; 21 g fat; 11 g saturated fat; 11 mg cholesterol; 6 g protein; 63 g carbohydrate; 38 g sugar; 2 g fiber; 384 mg sodium; 132 mg calcium Adapted from Midwest Living
Makes 24 servings
2 bags of microwaved light popcorn
2 1/2 cups salted dry-roasted peanuts
8 ounces (2 sticks) butter — no substitutions
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup packed light brown sugar
1/2 cup light corn syrup
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1. Heat oven to 250 F. Lightly grease 2 rimmed baking pans or spray with nonstick cooking spray. Place popped corn in very large bowl, discarding unpopped kernels. Add peanuts, and toss to combine.
2. In a 3-quart pan over medium heat, cook butter, sugar, brown sugar and corn syrup, stirring frequently with metal or heat-safe spatula, until butter melts and sugars dissolve; about 5 minutes. Increase heat to medium-high and bring to a boil. Boil 3 minutes. Remove from heat; stir in baking soda (the mixture will bubble vigorously) and pour over popcorn mixture. Stir immediately and continue stirring until all popcorn is evenly coated.
3. Divide popcorn mixture between prepared baking pans; spread evenly. Place pans on 2 oven racks. Bake 32 to 40 minutes, rotating pans between upper and lower racks halfway through baking, and stirring occasionally.
4. Cool mixture completely in pans on wire racks, about 1 hour. Break apart any large clusters of popcorn when cool. Store in tightly sealed containers at room temperature up to 2 weeks. Per serving: 259 calories; 16 g fat; 6 g saturated fat; 20 mg cholesterol; 5 g protein; 27 g carbohydrate; 20 g sugar; 2 g fiber; 73 mg sodium; 23 mg calcium Slightly adapted from Good Housekeeping
SLOW COOKER DULCE DE LECHE
Makes 56 servings
2 (14-ounce) cans sweetened condensed milk
1. Divide the sweetened condensed milk among 4 (6-ounce) canning jars or 3 (8-ounce) jars. Secure lids. Place in a slow cooker, adding enough hot tap water to cover by 1 inch. Cook on low for 11 to 12 hours or high for 5 to 6 hours, or until thick and richly colored, like dark copper.
2. To check doneness, use tongs to remove a jar. If the color looks good but you aren't sure it's thick, you can open a jar to check consistency; if necessary, secure lid again and return to cooker. When fully cooked, remove jars with tongs. Cool to room temperature; store in refrigerator for up to 3 weeks. The cooking process does not create a vacuum seal, so the jars must be stored in the refrigerator.
Per serving: 61 calories; 2 g fat; 1 g saturated fat; 7 mg cholesterol; 2 g protein; 11 g carbohydrate; 11 g sugar; no fiber; 24 mg sodium; 54 mg calcium Slightly adapted from Midwest Living