Candy Cane Lane bring a friend this holiday, Bring a friend who loves to play, we’ll eat all the candy canes!” —Sia
As an agnostic woman raised by wolves and MTV, it is a mystery why I go in so hard for the holidays. Obviously, I love food, and I love the allbets- are-off stretchy pants extravaganza, but my heart longs to call on friends and family and craves being wrapped in the nostalgia of happier times like a cozy shawl. And there are very few things that can chase a bout of winter depression into the shadows like a strong hot toddy and an eggnog blossom cookie.
We have an annual tradition of sending our kids around the neighborhood dropping off tins of cookies and cakes. I even look forward to trekking through the traffic to the houses of loved ones to visit and tell stories and laugh and break bread. And this year, at a time when we all need to feel closer to each other emotionally, but are unable to be together physically, I’m especially looking forward to leaving some cookies and gingerbread and a few alcoholbased handmade gifts on the doorsteps of loved ones.
When I was a child, my mother was the queen of the handmade gift. She could make aprons, dresses, quilts, crocheted blankets, arts and crafts galore.
And as I’ve grown up, I have come to appreciate the art of this gifting philosophy, especially when it comes to foods. There is something about preparing a gift in the spring, knowing that by some alchemy it will become something wholly new by the holidays, infused with the love and joy in my house all year long. I began curating my handmade gifts this year in the spring with an abundance of spruce tips and a genuine exhaustion of spruce tip tea. I also gathered and dehydrated mushrooms for umami mushroom powders and spring ramps for ramp salt and escabeche. There are so many bright special fl avors just popping out of the ground and blooming from evergreens.
A disclaimer for readers that are keen on these ideas: I do not recommend gathering without fi rst becoming familiar with Indigenous gathering techniques and a philosophy about abundance that centers traditional ecological knowledge. It is best to take only a very small amount from the wild, and to instead cultivate these things in your own backyard. The more that your apothecary becomes infused with better and wider intentions, the more good medicine you will spread into the world.
This coming spring I hope you can shift your focus to a bounty at your fingertips and soak in some inspiration like a spruce tip in sugar. Curate a cabinet that is bubbling with creativity, bold flavors, and new comforts. If you’re wondering what you can do right now, a box of spumoni cookies, eggnog blossoms, and gingerbread with cream cheese frosting will make any neighbor forget that you haven’t trimmed your side of the hedge and shine a delicious light on these fraught and uncertain times. The following recipes should yield four batches of each treat so you can share with friends.
HANDMADE GIFT IDEAS
Start these in spring for giving in 2021
To make these gifts, I search out interesting bottles and jars at antique shops and estate sales, and I buy flasks and brown glass droppers online. You can get creative with label designs and print them out yourself.
SINGLE-FOLD VANILLA EXTRACT
I belong to the Vanilla Bean Co-Op on Facebook, which is always accepting new members. They frequently offer beans direct from farmers for around $10–15 an ounce. This year I got beans from Indonesia, which I soaked in a Japanese whiskey, and Mexican-cured Madagascar beans, which I put in Bautista white rum. To make an extract, soak 2 ounces vanilla beans (double this amount for double-fold vanilla) in 1.5 pints vodka, white rum, whiskey, or bourbon for at least 6 months.
SPRUCE TIP INFUSED VODKA
This is an excellent gift for a martini lover. Gather 1 cup fresh green spruce tips in the spring, soak in 1.5 pints of vodka until the holidays.
SPRUCE TIP “MUGOLIO”
Traditional Mugolio is an Italian sweet pine syrup made from buds harvested from litt le conifers in the Dolomites of Italy. After it’s strained, it’s cooked into a dark syrup.
This “mugolio” is similar, but without the heft y price tag, and since I like mine fresh and light green like a honey pine elixir, I make an infusion of fresh spring spruce tips by placing equal amounts spruce tips and sugar in a jar. Set it in a sunny spot and let the magic happen. The syrup will take on a delicate, earthy complexity with none of the astringency that is oft en associated with evergreens. It makes a great simple syrup for cocktails or a drizzle to enjoy over ice cream. It’s also good over carrots and wild game.
Sara Calvosa Olson is a Karuk writer living with her soulmate, raising two large teenage sons. She has a regular column in News From Native California that explores California Indian foodways and reconnection to traditional Indigenous ingredients. Chími nu’am! (Let’s eat!)