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Gifts in Good Taste

Homemade holiday treats


During my childhood, my parents always gave homemade gifts to their friends, co-workers, and employees during the holiday season. My dad would stir up industrial-sized batches of his super-secret pancake mix, package it in zip top bags, and pair it with jars of my mom’s blueberry jam.

In exchange, we’d receive plates of chewy homemade toffees, tins of dense, sugar-dusted pfeffernusse and giant bags of long-roasted Chex Mix. (I loved the nearly burnt bits most of all.)

Since becoming an adult, I’ve spent years searching out my signature holiday treat, so that I could have a thing that my friends and neighbors would look forward to each December. I’ve tried tiny frosted sugar cookies (too much work), dark chocolate toffees (delicious, but I could not abide the endless wrapping), and pumpkin seed brittle (good, but not everyone likes grassy flavor of pumpkin seeds).

After much experimentation, I’ve settled on three treats that can be made in large batches, don’t require any special wrapping, and seem to hold universal appeal. The first is a crunchy toffee that is topped with a thin layer of chocolate and toasted almonds. I like to cook the toffee until it tastes like the sugar crust on the top of crème brulee.

Next up are maple-glazed pecans with fresh rosemary and a hint of cayenne. They’re good on salads and work perfectly as a quick nibble with a glass of wine. I package them in small jars and tie on paper luggage tags.

Finally, I make huge batches of caramel popcorn drizzled with melted down chocolate chips. The recipe is based on one that Molly Wizenberg posted on her blog, Orangette, several years ago and I’ve been making ever since. Crunchy, sweet, and salty, it is dangerous stuff to have around the house if you’re trying to fit into a holiday outfit.

What’s your traditional sweet treat to make and share during the holiday season?

Crunchy Toffee with Chocolate and Toasted Almonds

Crunchy toffee with chocolate and almonds


  • 1 pound unsalted butter
  • 2 cups granulated sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 8 ounces semi-sweet chocolate chips
  • 1 cup toasted and chopped almonds


Line a rimmed half-sheet pan with parchment paper.

Melt butter in a wide pot over medium-high heat. Stir in sugar and salt as the butter melts.

Stir constantly with a silicone spatula, regularly scraping down the sides. It will bubble and hiss as you stir.

Cook until the toffee mixture has achieved a copper color, about that of a new penny. It will darken a bit more once you take it off the heat, so stop a shade lighter than you want the end product to be. For a traditional toffee flavor, cooking it to 300°F is just right. To walk the edge between sweet and slightly burnt, take it to 325°F. If you like

Once you’ve reached your desired level of doneness, remove pot from the heat and stir in the vanilla. It will sputter and spit when you add the vanilla, so be careful.

Pour the toffee into your prepared baking sheet and use a silicone spatula to spread it evenly. Let cool for approximately 10 minutes before sprinkling the chocolate across the top. When the chocolate begins to melt, use an offset spatula to spread it out into an even layer.

Sprinkle nuts across the warm chocolate and pat gently with your palms to embed the nuts into the chocolate.

Let the toffee cool for 4-6 hours, until it becomes stiff and brittle. Break into pieces. Store in an airtight container. This candy will keep well at room temperature for weeks (if it lasts that long).

Makes approximately 2 pounds

Rosemary Maple Pecans

Rosemary Maple Pecans


  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1/4 cup maple syrup
  • 2 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 2 teaspoons finely minced fresh rosemary
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne
  • 2 teaspoons sea salt
  • 1 pound pecan halves


Preheat an oven to 375ºF. Line a rimmed half sheet pan with parchment paper.

Melt the butter, maple syrup and brown sugar together in a small saucepan. Once they’re fully melted, remove from the heat and stir in the herbs, spices and 1 teaspoon sea salt.

Place pecans in a large, heat-proof bowl. Pour the syrup over the nuts and toss until they are well coated. Spread the nuts out in a single layer on the prepared pan.

Bake in the preheated oven, stirring occasionally, until the nuts are glazed and shiny with a deep golden color (this should take 10-15 minutes). Immediately upon removing the nuts from the oven, sprinkle them with the remaining sea salt and stir to combine.

Let the glazed nuts cool completely before packaging.

Makes approximately 1 pound

Caramel Popcorn with Chocolate Drizzle

caramel popcorn with chocolate drizzle


  • 1 tablespoon neutral oil
  • 3/4 cup unpopped popping corn
  • 6 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 cup packed dark brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup golden syrup or corn syrup
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 4 ounces semi-sweet chocolate chips
  • 2 tablespoons heavy whipping cream


Preheat the oven to 250°F. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper and lightly spray with cooking spray.

Heat oil in a large pot with a fitted lid (or a Whirley Pop). When it shimmers, add popping corn and cook, shaking pot constantly, until all the corn is popped.

In a medium saucepan, stir together the brown sugar, corn syrup, butter, salt, and 2 tablespoons of water. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat.

Continue to simmer, whisking often, until the mixture reads 250°F on a candy thermometer. Remove the pan from the heat, and whisk in the baking soda and vanilla (take care, the caramel will sputter and sizzle when you make those additions).

Quickly pour the hot caramel over the popcorn. Use a silicone spatula to fold the caramel into the popcorn, doing your best to distribute it as evenly as possible.

Transfer the coated popcorn to the parchment lined baking sheet. Bake for 1 hour. Remove from the oven and let cool for 15-20 minutes.

Once the popcorn is no longer steaming hot, measure the chocolate and whipping cream into a heatproof bowl and heat in the microwave or on top of a double boiler until it’s just melted. Using a spoon, drizzle chocolate over the popcorn.

When chocolate is set, gently break up the popcorn, and serve.

Store in an airtight container for up to a week.

Makes approximately 12 cups

Marisa McClellan is a food blogger, freelance writer and canning teacher based in Center City Philadelphia. She runs a website called Food in Jars, where she writes about canning, preserving and delicious things made from scratch. She regularly writes for the Food Network, USA Today, Grid Philly and Mrs. Wages. Her first cookbook, Food in Jars: Preserving in Small Batches Year-Round, is now available.


  1. Kimberly says:

    !These sound wonderful! My go-to treats each year are homemade vanilla marshmallows and an eggnog quick bread – the recipients start checking in November each year to make sure they will get their favorite goodies!

  2. My tradition is to bake an assortment and give most of it away each year. I’d like to say I *always* make _____, but the fact is I change it up each year. This year I’m giving a plate of eggnog cookies, molasses-honey crinkle cookies, chocolate crackle cookies, and cranberry-apple-pecan-tangerine soaked whole grain mini muffins. Last year included shortbread and snicker doodles. Next year, who knows? Thank you for these recipes–they look delicious and versatile.

  3. I haven’t made popcorn like this since I had to stand at the stove on a chair–excited to dive into this recipe! Looks fantastic and like it’ll be a hit for the Christmas party loonies.

    I keep it simple with a go-to: loads of cookies. Like 10 different batches. But I’m trying to get into something easier (and less time consuming) so this year I just soaked some cherries in different liquors and am calling it a topping.

  4. K says:

    My go-to has become what my friend M calls obscenities- salted caramel between two graham cracker quarters covered in chocolate. I do those as more token gifts and if I do a cookie platter, it includes those, eggnog snickerdoodles, and variation on a brown butter walnut chocolate chip cookie- this last time I made them with whiskey and butterscotch chips- double scotches!

  5. Carol says:

    I Roast pecans in butter, almonds in olive oil, (which my mom always did when I was growing up) dip dried apricots in dark chocolate, and make white chocolate peppermint bark. Love all these ideas and the ones in the comments. Gotta add them to my list for next year!

  6. Sarah Williams says:

    I bake between 20 and 40 different kinds of cookies each year. My sisters get a big box sent to them each year and the rest get shared with friends, neighbours and co-workers. If someone doesn’t show sufficient appreciation they don’t get them again. My husband even does a web page so people can know what each cookie is.

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