Home Cookin': I sort of care about you

Ellen Verni has been writing "Home Cookin'," her column of Catskills recipes and rumination, for 24 years. She is sharing some of her archived columns with the Watershed Post. The column below first ran in December 2007. You can get more of Verni on her blog, at homecookincolumn.blogspot.com.

At Christmas, it’s usually the big gifts for those closest to us that are covered. But when it comes to giving that little gift of appreciation to a neighbor, co-worker or trooper who stops you when you’re speeding, then we’re stumped.

I remember one year getting a gag gift for a friend of a friend. It was one of those dumb things that made a hysterical laughing sound when prodded. (It was a long time ago; I was young.) When we exchanged gifts at a party, I opened his to me first. It was a gorgeous velvet antique jacket with ruffles and crystal buttons. Obviously, that gift exchange wasn’t one of my finest moments.

There have been close second and third least finest moments since, and now that I’ve reached that decade of wisdom (so they tell me), I stick to food.

Even if people don’t like to eat, at least they need to eat to survive. So, food is a good gift to give.

Originally, I was going to give out individual pot roasts, but they were hard to wrap, so I’ve settled on homemade jams, condiments, cookies, and little cakes.

At the beginning of December I make up a list of those I want to give a little something to at Christmas, then I assess if they’re a zucchini relish or mini lemon cake type of person. I get to work about 2 weeks before the holiday filling my list and making a few extra in case anyone holds the door for me.

If you’re leaning toward food as a token, “yes I’ve thought of you for the holidays, but not that much” gift, here are some ideas:

  • Jam or jelly – I usually put up jars of jam during each particular season that fruit is abundant. I prepare some 8-ounce jars for my pantry, but also set aside some small 4-ounce jars. You could decorate them with nice little gingham covers and tie them with ribbon. I’ve also seen them wrapped with leaves. Just be careful that it’s not poison oak.
  • Spiced nuts – these are great and a little goes a long way. They could be either packed in little decorative jars or pretty holiday gift bags. Check to see that the person on the receiving end is not allergic to nuts. That could put a damper on the entire evening.
  • Homemade candy – this could be a problem, as when I make nut brittle or peppermint bark it rarely makes it to the recipient. I tried hiding it one year to remove temptation; I did such a good job that I found it five years later and it was still sort of good.
  • Cookies – who doesn’t like cookies?
  • Miniature cakes – who doesn’t like cake? If the recipient is on a diet, well, then it’s too damn bad. It’s the holidays; live a little! Cookies and mini cakes can be either wrapped in red or green cellophane or packed in a decorative holiday tin. And, they could use the tin afterwards for their pot… er… pot roast.


These are Greek cookies popular at Christmas. It’s traditional to stick a whole clove in the top to represent the gift of spices that the Three Wise Men brought to Mary. This recipe took me 10 years to acquire. My ex-sister-in-law’s mother, who was Greek, would make these every Christmas but wouldn’t share the recipe. One year I would ask, “I taste walnuts; do they have a lot of walnuts in them?” And, she would answer, “Not that much, about three-quarters of a cup.” The next year I would ask, “There’s some rum in them, right?” And she would reply, “No, it’s brandy, but only about a spoonful.” Thankfully, the marriage lasted the ten years it took me to get a list of all the ingredients. I love these cookies.

  • 3/4 cup walnuts
  •  1- 1/2 cups flour
  •  1/2 tsp. baking powder 
  • 1/4 tsp. salt 
  • 1 stick unsalted butter, softened 
  • 1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar 
  • 1 large egg yolk 
  • 1 tbsp. brandy 
  • 1 tsp. pure vanilla extract 
  • 1-2 tbsp. orange flower or rose water 
  • 3/4 cup confectioner’s sugar for coating
  1. Preheat oven to 350°F.
  2.  Toast the nuts until golden brown and fragrant, about 6 minutes. Let cool, then chop about half of the nuts (you should have about 1/2 cup chopped). Pulse the remaining nuts in a food processor until finely ground. 
  3. Stir the flour, baking powder, salt, and all the nuts together in a medium bowl. Set aside. 
  4. In another medium bowl, beat the butter, sugar, egg yolk, brandy, and vanilla together with an electric mixer on medium-high speed until the mixture gets light and fluffy, about 10 minutes.
  5.  At low speed, stir in the nut mixture to make a crumbly dough. Cover the bowl and set dough aside at room temperature for 1 hour.
  6. Coat 2 baking sheets with nonstick spray. With a tablespoon, scoop out 1-inch pieces of dough and roll into balls between the palms of your hands. Place the cookies on prepared baking sheets and bake until the cookies set and start to brown, about 18 minutes.
  7. Remove cookies from oven and immediately sprinkle them lightly with the orange water by dipping your fingers into the water and flicking them over the cookies a few times. Take care not to douse them, just sprinkle enough for them to carry the scent of flowers. 
  8. Put confectioners’ sugar in a bag, and add 5-6 warm cookies to it. Very gently toss the cookies to coat with sugar. Remove from the bag and cool cookies on a rack. Repeat with remaining cookies. Makes about 2 dozen.

Spiced Pecans and Dried Cranberries

The nuts are both salty and mildly spicy, and when you bite into a dried cranberry, the sweetness is a pleasant surprise. You could substitute dried cherries, blueberries, or raisins for the dried cranberries.

Note: It is very important to add the butter to the nuts, not the other way around, as the butter will continue to cook if you leave it in the pan, and eventually burn.

  • 1 lb. shelled pecan halves 
  • 1/2 lb. dried cranberries 
  • 1 tbsp. brown sugar 
  • 1 tbsp. paprika 
  • 1 tsp. ground cayenne 
  • 2 tsp. salt 
  • 1/2 stick butter
  1. Place the pecans and cranberries in a bowl. Combine the sugar, paprika, cayenne and salt in a bowl and stir to mix. 
  2. Heat a sauté pan over medium heat and add the butter. Cook the butter until it gets foamy and develops a nutty aroma, being care that it doesn’t burn. Pour the brown butter, as it’s called, over the nuts and toss well to coat. 
  3.  Add the sugar mixture to the nuts, and again toss well to coat. Serve at room temperature. Store in an airtight container for 2 week. 

Ellen Verni resides in Margaretville, and is the author of the cookbook, “The Kitchen Chronicles: From the ‘D’ Train to a Dirt Road”. Please send comments, as well as recipe suggestions or questions, to her e-mail address, blackdog@catskill.net. Image by Marie-Lan Nguyen, via Wikimedia Commons.