If there is a silver lining in the recent economic dark cloud, it might be that ‘downsizing’ out of necessity has changed how we think about gift giving. Yes, Black Friday is still a big deal for some, and kids are still making their lists and checking them twice, but the spirit of giving, rather than the price tag on the gift, has regained some of its traditional charm and appeal.
This year, why not take the time to make the majority of your gifts–gifts you can give to teachers, babysitters, party hosts or just enjoy yourself? It’s a great way to save money, create a family tradition and have fun. You could make a batch of coffee cake or candy or even natural hand sanitizer. If you plan it carefully, it can be a great family project–let the kids help in the kitchen, decorate the gift tags and then travel together to bestow your creations to those on your list. .
One idea is to make a batch of homemade jam. Maybe you have a fruit tree in your back yard. Or if not, make a note to yourself to stock up on summer fruits when they come around again to make jam next year. There is nothing like the warm coziness of a kitchen in full swing on a cold winter day, with the sweet aroma of bubbling jam in the air.
If you haven’t got bags of frozen blackberries in your freezer, pears, figs, citrus, grapes, apples and persimmons are all in season. Go to your local farmer’s market, where you can sometimes get a good price when you buy in bulk, or when the fruit is overly ripe. Persimmon or fig jam is great on buttered toast but elevates to the sublime with cheese on good bread. You can even use your jam on a tray of hors d’oevres for the next holiday party, if you’re in a pinch.
Before you get started, count on at least 3-4 hours and make sure you have 2 big pots, lots of sugar and a plan.
While every cook has their own secret recipe, the basics of jam making are pretty consistent. First you want to cook your fruit with sugar and lemon until the mixture comes to a full rolling boil. Then you need to decide if you like seeds in your jam or if you want to strain them out. Straining hot jam can be tricky with little ones, but if you keep them at a safe distance, it is magical to watch. While the simmering and straining is going on, you want to sterilize your glass jars and tops. Finally, you will transfer the jam to the jars, put the two-part lids on, and put them in a water bath to make a seal that will protect your jam for months. If all this sounds like fun to you, and you think your kids will have a good time, then pull out your aprons and spoons and get to work!
The process is long, so prepare your kids. Get them excited by letting them name the jam something funny or special such as ‘Polly’s Persimmon Dream’ or the ‘Smith Family’s Marvelous Marmalade’. Standard canning jars usually come with labels. Get the kids to draw or write on the labels–pull out your colored pencils and sit down with them–and have them select a special ribbon to accessorize the jars. The great thing about home projects is that you get time to hang out with your kids; so go ahead and make hot chocolate, listen to music and get caught up. Or if your kids are still napping, try to plan the project so you can take a break to put them down while you get things started or finish up.
A great book to accompany your project is A Snowy Surprise (also known as You Can Do it, Sam), by Amy Hest, a story about a little bear and his mama who bake cakes together, and then distribute them throughout town one snowy day. You probably already own Jamberry by Bruce Degan, or Blueberries for Sal by Robert McCloskey, but these classic stories take on new meaning when you are making jam yourself.
Have a favorite homespun gift you like to create with your kids? Tell us about it in the comments below!