Mark McClusky says for elite athletes today, pushing boundaries and breaking records is all about "the aggregation of marginal gains."
If you’re looking for gifts with the personal touch, Here & Now resident chef Kathy Gunst says start in the kitchen.
She has nine suggestions for do-it-yourself food gifts, including D.I.Y. Mint Tea, Chocolate-Dipped Buttercrunch, Spunky Pickled Peppers and Onions, Provencal Herb-Lemon Salt, Chocolate-Caramel Sauce with Sea Salt, Vanilla Bean Caramel Sauce, Mulled Wine Syrup, Vinaigrette and Chocolate-Dipped Pistachio-Orange Biscotti.
Present the tea with a few beautiful mugs, a tea strainer, and/or a glass tea pot.
Find bunches of organically grown mint – spearmint, peppermint, chocolate mint, pineapple mint—at a farmers market or farm stand. Hang the mint in a bundle upside down in a cool, dark spot for a few days until dry. When the mint is thoroughly dry, crumble it up.Andrea’s Chocolate-Dipped Buttercrunch
Present the buttercrunch in a new serving bowl or special tin.
My sister-in-law, Andrea Gunst, shared this buttercrunch recipe with me several years ago and it has changed my holiday traditions forever. This is the stuff everyone begs for year after year — be sure to make multiple batches. Buttercrunch, a caramel coated in chocolate and ground nuts, keeps for over a week in a cool dark spot in a tightly sealed tin.
You can double the recipe if you like, but if you want to make more you shouldn’t try to multiply the recipe by three or four – make multiple double batches.
1 cup unsalted butter
1 cup sugar
1 tablespoon light Karo syrup
2 tablespoons water
2 large (about 7 or 8 ounce) chocolate bars*
About 1 cup very finely chopped walnuts**
*Buttercrunch can be made successfully with regular grocery store milk chocolate or chocolate chips, but you can also splurge and use fabulous bittersweet or semi-sweet 60% cocoa chocolate. The choice is yours.
**You can use walnuts, almonds, pecans, pistachio, or any type of nut but it must be finely chopped to adhere properly to the chocolate.
Line a cookie sheet with a piece of well-greased aluminum foil.
In a medium saucepan, heat the butter, sugar, Karo syrup and water over a low heat, stirring frequently. The mixture will caramelize and is ready when it hits 290 degrees on a candy thermometer. Watch it carefully, particularly toward the end of the cooking process. It will take at least 15 to 20 minutes to reach 290 on low heat. The mixture can burn easily; reduce the heat to very low and stir constantly if it seems to be cooking too quickly or turning darker than pale golden brown.
When the candy hits 290 remove from the heat and carefully spread it out in an even layer on the sheet of greased foil. Spread with a spatula to make a fairly thin layer. Let cool and harden. (If you are really impatient you can place the cookie sheet outside in the cold in a protected place so it will harden more quickly.)
While the buttercrunch is hardening melt the chocolate in a saucepan over very low heat, stirring until smooth. If you choose to let the buttercrunch harden outside or in a very cold spot you must bring it back to room temperature before spreading with the chocolate. If the buttercrunch is too cold the chocolate won’t adhere properly.
When the buttercrunch is hard to the touch (you shouldn’t feel any soft spots), use a soft spatula and spread a thin layer of chocolate over the entire thing. Sprinkle with half the nuts, pressing down lightly so they adhere. Again, if you are the impatient type, you can let the chocolate harden in a cold spot. The chocolate should be fully dry—no wet spots to the touch.
Carefully remove the foil with the candy from the cookie sheet; place the cookie sheet on top of the foil and candy. Gently flip the candy over onto the cookie sheet and peel away the foil. Spread the remaining chocolate on top of the other side of the buttercrunch. Sprinkle with the remaining nuts, pressing down lightly. Let the chocolate harden and set in a cool spot.
When the buttercrunch is dry and hard break it into small pieces. You can keep it in a cool, dry tin or tightly sealed plastic bag for up to two or three weeks.
Seal in a mason jar wrapped with colorful ribbon or raffia. Pair with a few beautiful locally-made cheeses and a wooden cheese board.
My friend Jess Thomson, a Seattle-based food writer and the author, most recently, of Dishing Up Washington sent me the recipe for this simple colorful recipe for pickled peppers.
Jess says: “Based loosely on Marisa McClellan’s recipe for Basic Pickled Jalapeño Peppers in Food in Jars, this colorful, mildly spicy blend of bell peppers, red onions, and jalapeños makes the perfect Christmas gift—if you can keep them around that long. Note that this recipe makes extra pickling brine. I tend to do that each time I pickle; I keep the brine for quick pickling things like green beans and carrots.”
2 cups distilled white vinegar
2 cups apple cider vinegar
4 cups water
1/4 cup kosher salt
2 tablespoons sugar
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 tablespoon mustard seeds
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
2 pounds small bell peppers, stems and seeds removed, sliced into 1/4-inch rounds
4 jalapeño peppers, stems and seeds removed, sliced into 1/4-inch rounds
1 medium red onion, cut into 1/4-inch slices
Prepare and sterilize five pint-sized jars (or similar) and fresh lids for canning per the jar manufacturer’s instructions.
In a large soup pot, combine the vinegars, water, kosher salt, sugar, garlic, mustard seeds, and peppercorns. Bring the mixture to a simmer, stirring occasionally, and cook for a minute or two, until the sugar has dissolved completely.
Add the bell and jalapeño peppers and the onion to the brine, stir, and let cook over the lowest heat, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes, until the red onion begins to lose its color and the jalapeños are a darker shade of green.
Using tongs, pack the peppers and onions into the sterilized jars. Pour the hot brine over the peppers and onions in each jar, leaving about 1/2 inch of headspace. Use a wooden chopstick to poke and stir the ingredients (to encourage any bubbles to escape). Add more brine, if necessary.
Wipe the rim of each jar carefully with a clean cloth. Apply the lids and rings, and process in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes, again using the jar manufacturer’s directions.
Present the salt in a small glass jar with ribbons. Attach a gift card or label with ideas for how to use the salt. Pair with a collection of other sea salts from around the world with a salt grinder.
The pungent aroma of herbs mixed with fresh lemon zest creates a salt that is delicious sprinkled on salads, pasta dishes or grilled lamb chops. Sprinkle it to season grilled seafood, sautéed fish, or chicken. Rub it lightly on a leg of lamb before roasting, use it to season a salad made with tomatoes, onion, and goat cheese, or stir some into a good olive oil and serve as a dipping sauce. This salt is also delicious sprinkled on corn on the cob, hard-boiled eggs, egg salad, even a simple fried egg.
The salt will keep in a cool, dry spot for several months.
1/2 cup sea salt
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon dried rosemary
1 teaspoon dried basil or oregano
1 heaping teaspoon grated lemon zest*
1 small bay leaf
*Wash and dry the lemon before grating
In a small bowl, mix the salt breaking up any large crystals. Stir in the herbs and lemon zest and mix well. Let sit one hour to dry out the fresh lemon before sealing in a small glass jar. Bury the bay leaf in the middle of the salt.
Present the sauce in a glass jar with ribbons or raffia and add a collection of good dark chocolates, sea salt and a copy of this recipe so, once addicted, they can make more.
Let me give you a word of advice. You might want to make a double — or triple — batch of this sweet sauce. This is a super rich caramel-based chocolate sauce, spiked with sea salt, that is perfect for so many things: licking off a spoon, pouring over ice cream, adding to hot milk for insanely rich cocoa, pouring over holiday cookies, puddings and cakes. Or drizzle a bit into coffee.
1 1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup water
1 cup heavy cream, at room temperature
1 1/2 to 2 ounce dark chocolate, chopped
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
About 1/2 to 1 teaspoon coarse sea salt depending on how much love your salt!
In a medium saucepan heat the sugar and water over medium-high heat. Once it come to a simmer stir frequently and let cook about 12 minutes, or until it beings to turn a caramel color. Use a spatula to wipe the sugar off the sides of the pan. Once the caramel has begun to color, remove from the heat. Do not worry if it seizes up and becomes a thick clump; it’s not ruined!
Add the cream, whisking to break up the sugar clumps. Whisk and whisk and whisk. Add the chocolate and whisk until the sauce is smooth. Add the vanilla and a touch of salt, adding more salt and tasting until you get it just right. The sauce will thicken as it cool.
Keep in a glass jar tightly sealed in the refrigerator for about a week.
Present the sauce with a glass jar of real vanilla beans, and an assortment of cookies or pound cake for serving with the sauce.
Making caramel — the act of “melting” sugar over high heat and then mixing it with other ingredients — used to scare us so much that we avoided it altogether. But after many experiments we came up with this simple, no-fail recipe. Remember: there is nothing to fear but fear itself.
The caramel will last at least a week and can be used in an infinite number of ways — drizzled on pies, tarts and galettes, cheesecake, or on top of ice cream, yogurt, cookies, brownies, etc. Make a double batch and give the caramel sauce as a gift. Look for a squeegee bottle (the kind diners use to serve ketchup in) and you can have fun creating patterns and designs with the caramel.
1/2 cup heavy cream
One 2-inch piece vanilla bean
1 cup sugar
1 tablespoon water
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
Place the cream in a small saucepan. Split the vanilla bean lengthwise with a small, sharp knife. Scrape the seeds into the cream, and add the empty bean. Bring the vanilla cream to a bare simmer over low heat, then remove from heat and set aside.
Combine the sugar and water in a small stainless steel or ceramic saucepan. Bring to a boil. Cook, swirling the pan occasionally to wash any burning sugar crystals off the sides of the pan, or use a pastry brush moistened with water to remove any sugar sticking to the sides of the pan. Cook until the mixture turns a golden caramel color. If you’re using a candy thermometer, bring to about 305 degrees. Remove the sugar from the heat and immediately stir in the cream, being very careful since the sugar is very hot. (The mixture will bubble up a bit.) Whisk in the butter, stirring constantly until the butter melts completely. Using a slotted spoon, carefully remove the vanilla bean.
Transfer the caramel to a squeeze bottle, and use warm.
Store caramel at room temperature for a few hours, or refrigerate overnight. To reheat, fill a mixing bowl with the hottest tap water. Place the squeeze bottle in the bowl for 5 to 10 minutes, rotating occasionally, until the caramel loosens up. The caramel will keep for about a week.
Pair the syrup with a special bottle of wine or a collection of spices—whole cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, star anise and peppercorns.
This recipe comes from my friend Joe Yonan, food and travel editor of the Washington Post. The recipes comes from his book, Serve Yourself: Nightly Adventures in Cooking for One (Ten Speed Press, 2011).
This is the perfect use of leftover wine — or even partial bottles of multiple wines left over from a holiday party — and it makes a striking, ruby-colored gift. It’s delicious on ice cream, yogurt, or even duck, venison or other game. Make a parfait by drizzling it in between layers of Greek yogurt, blood orange slices, and almonds. My favorite spice combination is this one, but you can feel free to use whatever spices strike your fancy — whole cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and/or allspice are all contenders.
1 1/2 cups red wine of any variety
1/2 cup sugar
2 whole star anise
1 teaspoon pink peppercorns
1 vanilla bean, split
Combine the wine, sugar, star anise, and peppercorns in a wide pot or skillet over medium-high heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean into the mixture, and add the pods.
Bring to a boil, then decrease the heat to medium; cook until the liquid becomes syrup and has reduced by about two-thirds, about 10 minutes or longer, depending on the size of your pot.
Use a fine-mesh strainer to strain the syrup into a small container; discard the spices and let cool. Pour into a decorative bottle, and refrigerate. (Tell the recipient that the syrup is best refrigerated for long-term storage, but can be kept at room temperature for up to 2 weeks.)
Variation: Use white wine instead of red, and use 1 vanilla bean and five 1/4-inch slices of fresh ginger instead of the other spices.
Pair the salad dressing with a new wooden salad bowl, or a bottle of excellent olive oil and vinegar.
Making salad dressings from scratch is so simple but, for some reason, it scares people. (Why else would there be a huge bottled salad dressing industry?)
The idea here is to give family and friends a beautiful bottle of dressing along with the recipe and a maybe a great bottle of olive oil and vinegar and they can keep the tradition going.
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 tablespoon chopped fresh chives or parsley
1/3 cup white wine vinegar
2/3 cup olive oil
In a bowl, mix the mustard, salt, pepper and chives. Add the vinegar and mix. Whisk in the olive oil. Taste for seasoning and adjust as needed. Place in a tightly sealed jar and refrigerate. The vinaigrette will keep for about 2 weeks.
Add any of the following:
*Dash soy sauce
*1 to 2 tablespoons chopped fresh herbs—basil, thyme, rosemary, etc.
*1 to 2 tablespoons drained capers
*1 to 2 tablespoons milk or cream or yogurt, mixed in well
Present the biscotti in a beautiful tin or on a new serving plate, wrapped tightly in clear plastic with ribbons. Pair with new baking sheets and a basket of winter tangerines.
These twice-baked cookies are laced with crystallized ginger, tangerine rind and tangerine juice, and then dipped into semi-sweet chocolate to create a crunchy, satisfying biscotti. Serve with hot chocolate, tiny cups of strong espresso, or a pot of tea.
2 cups, plus 2 tablespoons flour, plus more for dusting
1 cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup cold unsalted butter (1/2 stick), cut into 4 pieces
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 packed teaspoon freshly grated tangerine or orange zest
1/4 cup tangerine orange juice, preferably fresh-squeezed
½ cup very thinly sliced or chopped crystallized ginger
1/2 pound semi-sweet or bittersweet chocolate, about 55%, chopped
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
In a large bowl, stir the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt together until blended. Add the butter and blend into dry ingredients using your fingertips or a pastry cutter, until the mixture resembles coarse sand. Mix the eggs, vanilla, zest, and juice in a separate bowl until well blended. Add wet ingredients to dry ingredients and stir with a wooden spoon until ingredients are just blended. Fold in the ginger.
Generously flour a clean working area. Using floured hands, divide the dough into two equal portions. Form each piece into a flat log roughly 12-inches long by 2-inches wide by 1-inch high, adding additional flour as needed to prevent the dough from sticking to the counter. Repeat with remaining dough. Carefully place logs 2 to 3 inches apart on the parchment-covered baking sheet.
Bake the logs for 25 minutes on the middle shelf, or until firm to the touch and just beginning to brown. Remove from the oven and let cool, about 10 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 300 degrees.
Transfer the logs to a cutting board. Using a sharp, serrated knife, cut logs on a slight diagonal into 1/2-inch wide pieces with a gentle “sawing” motion. Place the biscotti on the unbaked side on the baking sheet(s). Bake an additional 30 minutes, turning biscotti once halfway through baking. Biscotti should be firm to the touch and golden brown on both sides. Remove from baking sheet and cool completely on wire racks.
While the biscotti are cooling, place the chopped chocolate in a small, wide skillet and place over very low heat, stirring continuously. When almost all of chocolate has melted, remove from the heat and let rest 5 minutes. Dip one flat side of each biscotti into the chocolate and hold vertically to let excess chocolate drip off. Place biscotti chocolate-side up on wax paper to cool until the chocolate hardens, about 3 to 4 hours. The biscotti will keep, in a cool, dark, well-sealed tin or plastic bag, for several days.
Makes: about 3 dozen biscotti.