DIY Christmas: Cooking up cheap, tasty and personal food for all your holiday gifts

Oh, you don't actually have to inject heartfelt feelings into every batch of candies you're giving as a gift -- during this season that's likely to add a hint of bitterness to the dish -- but the fact that you spent your own time and effort on the act of creation goes a long way to creating a sense of goodwill in a gift. In the process, your efforts are also likely to impress your recipients, even if the quality of the food itself isn't up to specialty store standards.

There are a few key rules to giving home-cooked food as a gift that you need to follow if you want to maximize the effect. First: Never admit to failure. Julia Child was a big proponent of ignoring any problems at the table, since the people eating your efforts will likely have no clue that something went wrong. The counter to that is to make sure the recipient knows how much thought you put into the gift, like: "Hey boss, you buy Blow-Pops at the Quick Stop every afternoon and you like BLTs for lunch, so I though you might appreciate my Bacon Lollipops!"

Second: Presentation is key. Head out to your local party or craft store (Michael's is a good option) and buy inexpensive paper boxes, brightly colored cellophane, ribbons and strings, and susbtantial gift tags with which to decorate your hand-crafted treats. I'm partial to Chinese take-out containers emblazoned with silver snowflakes thanks to a $3 stamp and ink kit, all wrapped in gold plastic with a flourish on top. Get all Martha Stewart up in this.

Third: Assembly-line your process. Cooking, even the fairly easy recipes I've included here, takes some time. Make sure to plan ahead and make your gifts in quantity. Plan on several extra batches, just to have on hand in emergencies. If it turns out you don't need them as gifts, well, they'll taste all the sweeter when you eat them yourself.

Finally: Feel proud. Give hand-crafted food and you'll have accomplished a holiday gift-giving trifecta: spent less money, personalized the experience, and impressed your recipients. Plus, of course, there's all the taste-testing and quality control sampling. Happy holidays!

Here are some recipes to get you started (if there's no link yet, come back and check again later):


Cinnamon Raisin Swirl Bread

Chocolate Caramels

Shorties: One-line "recipes" for the recipe challenged.

Classic CL Recipes Perfect for Giving: Peppermint Bark, Cake Pops, Chocolate Rum Truffles, Dark Chocolate Toffee and Macadamia Nut Bark, Flaming Nuts, Peanut Butter Banana Bread,

Let's check your gift-giving list. Twice, even. There are your friends and loved ones, the people you really care about; buying holiday presents for those folks will likely take up most of your shopping effort, thanks to browsing online retailers or driving back and forth across town to accommodate all the disparate hobbies and interests they have. Then there's the supporting cast of your life: kids' teachers, hair dressers, psychotherapists, mail carriers, acquaintances, garbage collectors, co-workers, and party hosters. They'll get a few bucks in an envelope, a bottle of wine or, if you're feeling especially ambitious, a parade of practical Target gift cards and McDonald's certificate books.

Feeling the joyous sense of giving that's at the heart of the holiday season yet?

You can. Although the time of hand-painted ceramic ashtrays and knitted comb cozies is long gone, there is a simple solution to most of your holiday gift-giving needs that's personal, fulfilling and — perhaps most importantly — dirt cheap to accomplish. Homemade food, with a special ingredient that goes a lot longer than a $5 Target gift card that will likely be spent on motor oil or shampoo. And, if you hadn't guessed, that special ingredient is love.

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