Chefs' Picks: Edible Gifts by Culinary Pros
Chefs’ Picks tracks down what the pros are eating and cooking from coast to coast.
There’s a lot of stress when it comes to gifting at the holidays, but professional chefs are not the type to buckle under pressure. Many infuse their presents with an ultra-personal touch by using their culinary talents to create the gifts themselves. These edible (and drinkable) presents range from beyond-basic baked goods (standard sugar cookies need not apply) to a hot sauce so in demand that it’s now offered right in the creator’s restaurant. Here’s what chefs across the country are fermenting, infusing and baking for friends and family — and even some lucky customers.
Spanish Christmas Cookies
Cúrate in Asheville, North Carolina, is Chef Katie Button’s ode to tapas, where she celebrates the culinary traditions of Spain one small plate at a time. One of her favorite recipes is for polvorones, an almond cookie that gets its name from polvo, the Spanish word for “dust,” which is fitting, given their fall-apart-in-your-mouth texture.
Every Christmas Eve, Chef Button makes more than 600 of these classic Spanish Christmas cookies to give away to diners, but she also shares the recipe in her cookbook, Cúrate. She subs in buttery, roasted Marcona almonds for regular almonds, but she sticks with tradition when it comes to using lard (instead of butter). “The lard yields a melt-in-your-mouth crumbly round that still retains a toasty cookie appeal,” Chef Button explains. They make an excellent holiday gift — just follow her advice to store the delicate confections between layers of waxed paper tucked inside a cookie tin to minimize crumbling.
Executive Chef Jacques Larson has always had an appreciation for limoncello — the lemon liqueur traditionally sipped post-meal at Italian restaurants — and prides himself on the housemade version he offers at Wild Olive on Johns Island, South Carolina. So it’s no wonder that after a regular customer brought him a particularly luscious homemade spin on the standard recipe, he became fixated on re-creating it in time for holiday gift-giving. Known as Crema Di Limoncello, this indulgent beverage is a limoncello made with sweetened milk.
For his version, Chef Larson relies on two crucial ingredients (local, raw Sea Island milk and organic lemons), as well as one cheffy shortcut. Limoncello typically takes weeks to infuse, but Chef Larson cools the liquor and lemon peels together in an immersion circulator bath. That technique enables the oils to be extracted and the alcohol to be infused at a much faster rate, meaning Chef Larson can have a batch ready in hours. “The texture has a great, creamy mouthfeel, kind of like a cold eggnog of sorts. But here in the South, cold beverages are always warranted,” he says.
Holiday Hot Sauce
As co-founder of The Meatball Shop in New York City, Chef Daniel Holzman is known for turning the humble meatball into a transformative meal experience. But he is also a hot sauce aficionado and has been making his own version to gift friends and family for years. His holiday gifting strategy starts in late summer, when he begins fermenting his farmers market pepper haul in glass tubs.
“Most people who come over during these months are shocked by the science experiment I have set up in my small Williamsburg kitchen,” says Chef Holzman. “After years of perfecting my recipe, I’ve finally gotten the perfect balance of just a few ingredients to make the right blend of hot, vinegar and salt flavors.” It’s so good that friends insisted it be served at The Meatball Shop, so you’ll find a jar of Holzman’s Not So Hot Sauce on every table.
Perfect Hungarian Pastries
At FnB, her award-winning Scottsdale, Arizona, restaurant, Chef Charleen Badman has earned the nickname “the veggie whisperer,” but it turns out she has a deft hand with pastry too. To preserve a decades-old family Christmas tradition, Chef Badman recently learned to make two types of Hungarian pastries from her mom using her grandmother’s recipes.
This holiday season will see her kitchen fill up with kilfi, a not-too-sweet sour cream and yeast cookie that’s liberally dusted with powdered sugar and typically filled with jam or jelly (though Chef Badman will pull in walnuts and raisins instead, per her family’s preference). She’ll also be baking up kalac, a flaky and yeasted nut roll made with walnuts and raisins, or poppy seeds. “I will never forget the smell of yeast and sugar in our house when Mom was baking for the holidays,” Chef Badman says. “It’s one of my favorite memories, and this year I’ll be able to hand out the boxes of Hungarian treats to our family. I think it’s important to keep the tradition going.”
Chef-Owner Jimmy Bradley is the force behind enduring New York City institution The Red Cat, known for its down-to-earth hospitality and crowd-pleasing modern American menu. When it comes to holiday baking, Chef Bradley takes a cue from his Italian heritage and breaks out a generations-old family heirloom: a hand-held iron pizzelle cookie press.
“I make these crisp, delicate cookies every Christmas Eve with a little anise in the batter, and I love to serve them as ice cream sandwiches with brown sugar/balsamic-swirled vanilla ice cream for holiday dessert,” Chef Bradley says. Follow his lead and incorporate the cookies into a decadent dessert, or share the joy by making a standard batch to take to a party as a gift. Just nestle the Italian waffle cookies in a festive box lined with tissue paper to present to the host or hostess.
For Chef-Partner Lee Anne Wong of Honolulu brunch favorite Koko Head Cafe, dreaming up the perfect holiday present was particularly easy. Her inspiration? That all-star brunch staple known as bacon. Chef Wong’s “Ultimate Bacon Gift Pack” includes a trio of homemade bacon goodies: bacon crack corn, bacon chocolate chip cookies made with Madre Chocolate’s local bean-to-bar chocolate, and billionaire’s bacon roasted with Maui cane sugar and finished with Hawaiian sea salt.
“If you happen to get a bacon gift box, then you know you’re on my special hit list, which means you’ve been both naughty and nice this year,” Chef Wong reveals. For the “bacon blasphemers,” she opts for a jar of homemade preserves made with local fruits like tangy lilikoi (yellow passionfruit) and sweet-tart poha berries.
Sweet Tastes of Scandinavia
At The Hive in Bentonville, Arkansas, Chef Matthew McClure mines the culinary traditions of the South to create his sophisticated take on country cuisine. But when jingle bells start ringing, he draws upon his wife’s Scandinavian roots and the delicious cookie recipes that have been passed down in her family through the generations. “One of my favorites is the Krumkake (it’s also fun to say!),” Chef McClure says. “My mother-in-law cranks these delicate crispy cookies out during the holidays, and they’re the perfect gift to give to friends and family.”
The cookie batter is poured into a design-embossed stovetop iron (similar to a tortilla press), the iron is clamped shut, and the batter is cooked for about a minute; then, it is wrapped around a wooden dowel. “As the cookies cool, they will harden and the shape is like a cannoli, but it is much thinner and crispier,” Chef McClure explains. “Fill them with whipped cream and they are incredible!”
A Festive Seasoning
When the holidays roll around, Chef Gabrielle Quiñónez Denton of Ox, in Portland, Oregon, helps friends and family get in the festive spirit by giving out her homemade “Everything Bagel Seasoning.” She dehydrates onion and fried garlic, roasts and toasts a mix of poppy, sesame (both white and black), caraway, nigella, and sunflower seeds, then tosses it all together with flaky sea salt. It may seem simple, but Chef Denton ups the gift-worthiness with beautiful packaging and chef-inspired tips.
“I find some cool, vintage-looking bottles and fill them up with the mixture, then seal it shut with a cork dipped in colored wax,” Chef Quiñónez Denton explains. “I tie a ribbon around it with a card strung through it that offers serving suggestions for the seasoning.” A few of her recommendations include sprinkling it over roasted winter squash or mixing it into yogurt to make a crudite dip.
“Everything” Bagel Seasoning
2 cups roasted sunflower seeds (roasted in oven)
2 cups toasted sesame seeds
1 cup toasted poppy seeds (toasted in a pan until they start to pop)
2 tablespoons nigella seeds (toasted in a pan)
2 teaspoons toasted caraway seeds (toasted in a pan)
1/2 cup Dried Onion Flakes (recipe follows)
1/3 cup dried garlic flakes
1/2 cup Jacobsen sea salt (crushed up between fingers into smaller crystals)
Special equipment: dehydrator
Combine all ingredients and store in a very dry, airtight container.
For Dried Onion Flakes
2 onions, peeled and smalldiced (a little smaller than small dice)
Spread the onions onto a sheet pan with parchment paper and bake at 225 degrees F in a convection oven until they are dried out and just starting to brown slightly. Stir every 5 minutes while baking.
Remove from the oven and, once they’ve cooled to room temperature, place them in the dehydrator at high temperature and dehydrate until completely dry and crisp. Store in a very dry, airtight container.
Photography courtesy of Evan Sung, Carolyn Larson, The Meatball Shop and Charleen Badman