Food & Drink

Heavenly homemade treats

Give a gift you know friends will love

Carmel Crunch popcorn. (J.B. Forbes/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/TNS)
Carmel Crunch popcorn. (J.B. Forbes/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/TNS)
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When you care enough to send the very best, you know that the very best is often homemade.

A box of candy is a lovely gift, and so is a big tin of flavored popcorn. But they just don’t have that personal touch.

To show your friends and loved ones that you care, make them a gift yourself. Homemade food gifts are always appreciated, and they can be simply wonderful.

The ones I made are good. I mean really, really good. And don’t tell anyone, but they are also easy. I mean really, really easy.

How easy? The Slow Cooker Dulce de Leche is literally nothing more than pouring canned sweetened condensed milk into jars, placing the jars in a slow cooker, adding water and turning on the heat.

Admittedly, this one gift does take time until it is done, but you can be off doing other things while it is cooking at a slow and even temperature. It takes about 11 to 12 hours on low heat — you can make it overnight — but I made it on high heat in six hours.

And what I had at the end was honest-to-goodness dulce de leche. If you’ve never had it before, maybe you should make a jar for yourself, too. It’s impossibly rich, impossibly creamy, impossibly delicious. The flavor is sort of like caramel, but it’s somehow better and more intense than caramel.

There are other ways of making dulce de leche that take less time but are more laborious. Traditionally, you slowly simmer together milk and sugar, stirring occasionally, for at least an hour and a half. But that takes a lot of standing at the stove.

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The slow-cooker method allows you to set it and forget it for about six hours or so. When it’s done, it can be used in any number of desserts, from pastries to the filling of sandwich cookies to an unbeatable sauce for ice cream. But to be perfectly honest, a lot of people just eat it out of the jar.

It’s that good.

Almost as easy to make as the dulce de leche is Winter Orange Pomegranate Iced Tea. It’s the perfect gift for an iced tea lover like me. It’s iced tea with extra zing and a holiday flair.

Instead of using regular water to make the tea, you begin with water that is flavored with orange, cinnamon and cloves. You steep the tea bags in this water for five minutes before adding orange juice, pomegranate juice and sugar.

Do add the sugar. I don’t like my iced tea sweetened at all, but this one needs it to counteract the tartness of the pomegranate juice.

The hardest part of making this iced tea gift is finding the bottles to put it in. I bought some shaped like soft-drink bottles for $2 apiece, and even as I was paying for them I was thinking “I could just buy soft-drink bottles for $1 and actually have the soft drink.”

I also made a big batch of Caramel Crunch, because it’s so easy and who doesn’t like it? It is the familiar blend of popcorn and peanuts coated in caramel.

Some say that it is impossible to crunch and munch such a homemade treat, that it cannot be made at home. Poppycock, I say.

The popcorn is easy; I used a microwave. But the caramel, which is usually tricky to make, is also easy. You just melt butter with granulated and brown sugars plus some corn syrup, bring it to a boil and add a dash of baking soda. Simple, but it becomes light and crispy and does a terrific job of coating the popcorn.

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Finally, I made something called Snowflake Mix, which is just a different form of Chex Mix. This one begins with Rice Chex and Corn Chex, plus pretzels and honey-roasted peanuts. You coat it all with melted white chocolate, and then comes the ingredient of true, unadulterated genius: mint-flavored M&Ms.

It’s like eating a beautiful snowfall, wintry and cool and refreshing. It’s got crunch, it’s got peanuts, it’s got pretzels. It has everything your friends and loved ones will want in a snack.

They’ll be singing “I’m Dreaming of a White Chocolate.”

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