The holidays are rapidly approaching and gift giving is in the air. I like to give homemade gifts to my friends and family. One year, when my older daughter was away at college and my nephew was overseas with the army, I decided to sew stocking advent calendars. I planned to sew 48 small stockings (enough for two projects), string them on a ribbon, fill them with little gifts and goodies, and have all this done and in the mail so they’d both have the advent calendars by December 1st.
I diligently began my project as soon as the Halloween decorations were put away. I purchased fun, seasonal cloth at a fabric store, cute trimmings to add to the stockings, and wide, decorative ribbon. The first calendar came together quickly and I shipped it off to Iraq filled with treats and surprises. And then my nightmare began.
Let me explain, I don’t like to sew. Though I have a sewing machine, I view it as an evil, thread-tangling demon that waits until my darkest hour of sewing need to ambush my desires. The second set of stockings dragged on and on: thread would break or tangle, I’d sew the wrong sides of the fabric together, or I’d stab myself with needle or scissors. Midnights came and went with me at the sewing machine. The project became a labor rather than a joy. I did finish and I did mail the advent calendar to my daughter who enjoyed having a small gift every day until Christmas, but I swore, “No more sewing projects!”
The advent calendar struggle taught me a valuable lesson: homemade gifts should be easy and enjoyable to make! For me, that means I need to concentrate my handcrafting efforts on gardening and cooking, two of my favorite pastimes.
One of the easiest gifts to make is infused vinegar. First, pick-up a gallon of vinegar at your local grocery. I prefer to use white but any will do. You’ll also need four or five clean quart jars with lids for the infusing process. I like to make a variety of vinegar flavors and have suggestions below, but you can make the vinegar into just one or two flavors. Don’t limit yourself to my suggestions, if you really love plums, make plum vinegar. If your aunt loves garlic, make her an over-the-top garlic infusion.
1. 6 cloves garlic, halved; 2 hot chilies like Serrano or Jalapeño, sliced; ½ bunch cilantro.
2. 1 blood orange, washed & sliced; 4-6 sprigs fresh rosemary.
3. 2 cups fresh or frozen cranberries, chopped; 1 tablespoon sugar; strips of orange zest from 1 orange.
4. 3 shallots peeled and quartered; strips of lemon zest from 1 lemon, 6-8 sprigs of fresh tarragon. If you can’t find fresh tarragon, use 2 teaspoons dried.
5. 2 cups fresh or frozen berries slightly crushed: raspberry, blueberry, blackberry.
Here’s the process: Rinse the flavorings and shake off water. If using frozen berries, simply thaw them. Place flavorings in jars. Heat vinegar in a couple of sauce pans on the stove. Do NOT boil, just heat through. Once the vinegar is hot, pour it into the waiting jars. Screw lids on and store in a cool, dark place for 2-3 weeks. Once the 2-3 weeks is over, strain the vinegar through cheesecloth or a jelly strainer and pour it into gift jars: smaller jars you’ve purchased or repurposed jars you’ve saved. When repurposing jars, be sure to wash them thoroughly.
When you’re repackaging the flavored vinegars into smaller jars, you can add a sprig of whatever flavoring you’ve used: a slice of orange, a couple of strips of lemon zest, a few berries. These are just for decoration. The flavorings you used to infuse the vinegar should be discarded.
Tie a tag on the jar with holiday ribbon or yarn. You can also create your own paper or adhesive labels. If you like, add use suggestions such as: “Sprinkle on salad with a little olive oil for dressing. “ Or “Add to sauces and soups for some homemade zing.” Infused vinegars will keep for a year and it’s useful to add “Good until December 2015” and “Refrigerate” to your label.