Some may be pleased to receive a nice sweater as a holiday gift, but foodies know the best way to win over their loved ones is through their stomachs.
Whether you wrap them with a bow, jar them or present them on a decorative plate, these budget-friendly, hand-made treats inspired by the flavors of Israel and the Middle East will provide bouts of holiday cheer without breaking the bank.
Quince in Spiced Syrup
Makes about 3 8-ounce jars
Quince, the pear’s wobbly perfumed cousin, is the perfect celebratory gift thanks to the bright pink tone of its finished syrup. Wait for the hue to deepen, and you’ll know your sweet and spicy gift is ready to share.
- 4 large quinces, peeled with a paring knife and cut into medium, thick slices
- Medium bowl filled with water and the juice of 1 lemon to place slices of quince while working
- 3 cups sugar
- 5 cups water (or enough to cover the quince)
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 3 whole cloves
- 4 strips lemon peel
- Bring all the ingredients to a boil.
- Simmer for 1 hour or until the syrup turns a lovely rosy shade.
- Pour into jars, let cool, and store in the refrigerator.
Orange Blossom-Scented Strudel Cookies
Makes about 2 dozen cookies
Often made with poppy seeds or walnut fillings, swap in date spread and orange blossom water to give these classic Eastern European cookies a Middle Eastern twist. Every bit as delicious as the original, these celebratory cookies pair well with a hot cup of coffee or tea.
- 2.5 cups + 1 tablespoon flour
- Pinch salt
- Pinch baking powder
- 1 cup slightly softened butter
- Half cup powdered sugar
- 1 large egg
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- Few drops orange blossom oil
- 1 cup date spread, available online or make your own by blending 1.5 cups pitted Medjoul dates in a food processor until smooth
- Half teaspoon cinnamon
- Zest of ¼ lemon
- 1 cup finely chopped walnuts, for sprinkling
Powdered sugar for sprinkling.
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
- In a medium bowl, combine all the filling ingredients. Set aside.
- In another medium bowl, combine flour, salt and baking powder. Set aside.
- In a stand mixer with a paddle attachment, cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Scrape down the sides with a silicon spatula, and add the egg and extracts. Mix to incorporate.
- Add the flour mixture all at once, and mix until it forms a dough.
- Remove dough from mixer, split into two, and form each half into a rectangle.
- Lightly flour the surface and roll out half the dough to create a long rectangle approximately 1/8 of an inch thick.
- Spread with half the filling, and sprinkle with half of the chopped walnuts.
- Roll up into an even jelly roll and cut into thick slices, two fingers wide.
- Bake for 10-12 minutes, or until cookies are golden at the edges.
- Let cool, then sprinkle liberally with powdered sugar.
Marinated Galilean Olives
Makes 4 8-ounce jars
These marinated olives transform boring canned olives into a festive party-ready snack. Make sure to use high-quality olive oil in the marinade so the flavored oil left behind can be used for cooking or to sop up with fresh bread.
- 2 12-ounce cans brined olives
- 2 sprigs fresh rosemary
- 6 small cloves garlic
- Half teaspoon ground sumac
- Half teaspoon ground oregano
- 5-6 strips lemon peel
- High-quality olive oil to cover
- Wash 4 jam jars in warm soapy water and dry well.
- Strain olives from their original brine and rinse lightly with water.
- Fill the jars with olives, leaving enough space to add the spices, herbs and lemon peel.
- Top off the jar with olive oil, seal tightly, and shake to evenly distribute the spices.
Olives can be stored at room temperature and enjoyed immediately, but are best after a few days of marinating.
Turkish Coffee Liqueur
Makes enough for about 4 8-ounce liqueur jars
Cardamom-laced Turkish coffee makes a traditional finish to any good meal. Elevate the coffee by adding a sweetened alcohol base to create a liqueur. Once ready, sip it as is for an after-dinner jolt or mix it into a drink for a delicious white Russian or coffee-flavored martini.
- 2 cups water
- 2 heaping tablespoons Turkish coffee or other finely ground, strong coffee
- 2 cups granulated sugar
- 1 teaspoon ground cardamom
- 1 750ml bottle vodka (about 3.5 cups)
- 2 teaspoons vanilla
- Cheesecloth or coffee filter
- In a large saucepan bring the water, coffee, cardamom and sugar to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until sugar is completely dissolved.
- Remove from heat and let cool to room temperature. Then add vanilla and vodka.
- Stir to combine and pour through a strainer lined with cheesecloth or a coffee filter over a large bowl.
- Let the coffee slowly drip through. Repeat the process with a fresh filter should any coffee grounds remain.
- Pour clean mixture into a decorative jar with a seal and store in a cool dark place for at least 1 week before using.
Cranberry Pistachio Halva
Makes about 3 dozen squares
Simply the word for “candy” in Arabic, halva can be found in an endless variety of flavors. This combination of brightly hued, savory pistachio nuts and sweet, tangy dried cranberries creates a festive mix and is an ideal do-it-yourself food gift, even for beginner candy-makers.
- 2 cups tahini paste (stir the tahini before measuring, in case the oil has separated from the solids during storing)
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- Few drops almond extract
- 2.5 cups sugar
- 1 cup water
- 1 cup shelled pistachios
- Half cup dried cranberries
- Line an 8×8-inch baking pan with baking paper and set aside.
- In a microwavable bowl, warm the tahini for 1 minute in the microwave.
- Stir in the vanilla and almond extracts. Transfer to the bowl of a stand mixer, attach bowl to mixer, and leave to cool slightly.
- In a medium saucepan, combine sugar and water. Gently simmer until a candy thermometer shows the mixture has reached 235 degrees Fahrenheit (about 5-10 minutes).
- Using a paddle attachment, turn on mixer and carefully pour the hot syrup down the side of the bowl.
- Beat on low to combine, then switch to high and continue to beat for about 5-7 minutes, until the mixture forms a dough-like consistency and pulls away from the sides of the bowl.
- Stir in the pistachios and dried cranberries and press evenly into the lined baking pan.
- Place in the fridge for 36 hours to set and crystalize.
- Cut into squares and wrap up for a festive gift.
Sfinge (Moroccan Donut) Mix
Makes 4 large jars, with enough mix for about 2 dozen donuts each
These donuts, famous throughout Israel, are rolled in orange sugar straight out of the oil for the sparkling sweetness to adhere. To complete the gift, include baking instructions with the per-batch specifications on a handwritten card and attach to the jarred mix.
- 8 cups flour
- 1 cup sugar
- 2 tablespoons yeast
- Half teaspoon salt
- 3 cups sugar
- Zest of 2 oranges
To make the sfinge, add 1 teaspoon vanilla, 1 cup water, plus more as needed per jar; or 4 cups water and 4 teaspoons vanilla for the entire batch, plus safflower oil for frying. Have on hand a small bowl of water for wetting hands.
- In a medium bowl, mix sugar and orange zest with a fork until evenly combined. Set aside.
- Add water and vanilla to the dry mix and mix until a dough forms.
- Knead the dough until smooth and elastic (5-10 minutes).
- Place ball of dough in the bowl, cover, and let rise in a warm spot for at least 2 hours, or until the dough reaches the top of the bowl.
- Punch dough down, and let rise in the bowl another 30-40 minutes.
- When dough is ready, fill a medium saucepan halfway with the safflower oil and heat until very hot. (To check if it is ready, place the handle of a wooden spoon in the oil. When the oil is hot enough, it will create a ripple effect around the wood.)
- Place a small bowl of water next to your dough bowl, wet hands lightly, and take a golf ball-sized ball of dough.
- Poke a hole through the center of the dough using your finger, stretch slightly into a donut shape, and gently place in the oil.
- Fry 4 sfinge at a time until golden brown, remove from the oil, and immediately roll in the orange sugar.
- Serve immediately.
Tip: For cold winter mornings, the dough will rise faster when placed in an oven that has only the light turned on.
(Edited by Carlin Becker and David Martosko)
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