Holiday party season is in high swing, and chances are you have a few shindigs to dig before the new year crawls in to provide us with the chance to rest. Until then, if you feel crummy coming to a party empty-handed you may habitually rely on flowers or a bottle of spirits, but there are other options - and many of them can be thrown together with kitchen ingredients you may already have on hand.
1. Vanilla SugarThis is embarrassingly easy, but provides a lot of bang for the bean. Split a vanilla bean, place the two halves in a clean jar, fill with sugar, shake it up, label it, apply a ribbon, voila. Vanilla sugar deepens in flavor with time, but even from the get-go it is wonderfully fragrant and delicious.
2. Pancakes in a Jar
This gift says, "I know you spent several days cooking for us and will be up all night cleaning up after our drunken revelry, so breakfast tomorrow is on me." (Or something like that.) This awesome homemade Bisquick-ish mix is simple to make and can be used for pancakes, biscuits, etc and will last for two months. See the how-to here: Quick and Easy Pancake Mix.
3. Preserved Lemons
This staple of North African and Middle eastern cooking adds a bright, tangy, salty bite to all it adorns. So good. And although these aren't exactly last-minute since they require time to sit, you can make a jar anyway and let your hostess know they will be ready for the new year. Here's how: Scrub organic lemons well before quartering them almost all the way, leaving the pieces attached at one end. Rub the insides with two tablespoons of Kosher salt per lemon, and pack them into a clean jar, pressing them well into the bottom. Fill the jar with more salt-rubbed lemons and then add fresh lemon juice to cover the lemons completely. The jar should be left out for a week, and after that, they will keep refrigerated for a year.
4. Homemade Flavored Salt
Herby salt, spicy salt, smoky salt, citrus salt, floral salt ... anyway you season them, flavored salts are heaven. And a cinch to make. The Purple Foodie has a good summary here, or if you're adventurous, start playing around with your won ideas. It's really, really hard to go wrong.
5. Spicy Hot Cocoa Mix
Few things say post-party comfort like a cup of spicy hot cocoa. Commercial cocoa mixes are often filled with questionable ingredients, and few pack the punch of cinnamon and cayenne that you can add when making your own. Alton Brown's spicy recipe is a good place to start (although you may likely not have an abundance of powdered milk on hand). And check out the recipe and packaging suggestions at My Baking Addiction for more sweet cocoa ideas.