To find out how to turn culinary projects into homemade holiday gifts, we turned to Karen Solomon, author of Jam It, Pickle It, Cure It and Can It, Bottle It, Smoke It and most recently, Asian Pickles: Japan. As the titles of her cookbooks suggest, Solomon is an expert in food preservation and DIY kitchen techniques. Here, she’s provided a couple of her favorite recipes and best tips for gifting handcrafted foods to loved ones this holiday season.
A cup of tea is an infusion, as are tinctures, extracts, cordials, and aperitifs. Infusions – the scientific terminology for solid stuff that has been used to flavor liquid stuff – can take place in water, milk, alcohol, oil, vinegar, etc. The meaning of infusion can even leak on over to the practice of diffusion, which is a technique of solid stuff being used to flavor solid stuff, such as storing truffles with eggs or nestling a vanilla bean into sugar. (Have you ever eaten a three-day old peanut butter sandwich stored in the same paper bag as a banana, and wondered how that wonderful banana taste got into your sandwich? Voila! And, uh, please note that I do not advocate eating three-day old peanut butter sandwiches.) Infusions add flavor simply, easily, naturally, and magically where there is none, and the process is a snap for the home cook, albeit time-consuming.
Let’s start with two classic infusion media: alcohol and vinegar. The methodology is as mentioned above: solid stuff left to soak in liquid stuff, leaving its flavor behind. For the Limoncello, it’s lemons into vodka. For herbal vinegar, it’s a whole mess of your favorite herbs in your favorite mild vinegar. Between the two of them, the creative and culinary possibilities are endless.
Limoncello is made smooth and creamy with the addition of milk to make Limoncello de Crema; an ice-cold vodka dessert drink that tastes like melted ice cream. Feel free to swap out some or all of that lemon zest for orange or lime and you have an equally punchy elixir. Or eschew citrus entirely and go for coffee beans for homemade coffee liquor.
And infused vinegar? Oh, the permutations! Thyme, oregano, and shiso leaf are among my top-tier herbs, but no need to stop there. Run hog wild with dried chili peppers, dried fruit like pineapple or mango, or go kooky with combinations like apple and green onion. Know that flavors will be stronger if you start with dried ingredients, and that it’s best to stick with light vinegars, like white wine or apple cider, as balsamic or rich red wine can have overpowering flavors to mask all of your effort.
Ready to gift this stuff? Of course you are! Pretty bottles? Check. Homemade labels? You’ve got it. But the piece de resistance: a fresh, decorative piece of whatever you’ve used to flavor your concoction, such as that simple twist of rind or a fresh herbal sprig.
Time commitment : less than 3 months
12 ounces liquid vinegar starter (Mycoderma aceti)
2 cups white or red wine
1 cup water
Instructions: Combine all the ingredients in a large earthen crock, a glass jar with a wide top, or a food-grade plastic bucket. Loosely cover the top of the vessel with a thin kitchen towel and tie the towel around the top to secure it. The idea here is to allow airflow in, but keep insects and debris out.
Store the vessel in a warm, dark place and let it sit, undisturbed, for 1 to 3 months. The liquid will grow more cloudy, a sheen will gather at the top, and eventually, a “mother”—a spongy, mushroomlike object—will form on the surface. Strain the vinegar, reserving the mother. Bottle it, date it, and it’s ready to use. Additionally, the mother can be used instead of liquid starter to grow additional batches of vinegar (using the same recipe as above). Simply add wine to water in a ratio of 2:1 and begin the process again. Makes about 11/2 cups.
How to Store It: The vinegar will last in a cool, dark place almost indefinitely. Note that your mother must be “fed” constantly to keep it alive.
A vinegar infusion is just a gussied-up way of saying flavored vinegar, and it’s a great ready-made flavoring condiment for salads, marinades, or anywhere you’d reach for salad dressing. Wild or mild, the flavor possibilities are endless.
Instructions: In a clean, odorless container with a tight lid, pour 1 cup of mild white wine, red wine, or apple cider vinegar (either homemade or store-bought) over 11/2 cups of packed, lightly crushed fresh herbs, such as cilantro, shiso leaf (found in Japanese markets), basil, or mint. Cap tightly, label and date the jar, and store in a cool, dark place. Swirl the contents of the jar every other day or so for 2 weeks.
After 2 weeks, filter the vinegar through a fine-mesh sieve set over a bowl, pressing on the solids to harvest as much of the vinegar as possible. If your plan is to gift the vinegar, pour it into an insanely attractive bottle and garnish with a couple of sprigs of fresh herbs, either inside or outside the bottle. If you’re keeping it for your own use, a pourable bottle or one with a shaker top is a great idea. Stored in a cool, dark place, your vinegar will keep shelf-stable for a year. Makes about 1 cup.
Other infusions I have enjoyed include: the zest of 4 large oranges; 5 jalapeño chiles sliced lengthwise, plus 1/2 teaspoon of liquid smoke; and 1 cup chopped sweet apple, the white of a green onion, 2 star anise, and a slice of fresh ginger. Note that you can use vinegars with a strong flavor, such as balsamic and some bold red wine vinegars, but that these strong flavors will remain in the finished infusion.
Time Commitment: 8 weeks
Prep Ahead: You’ll need a clean, odor-free, wide-mouthed glass jar with a tight-fitting lid for the infusion process. However, if you are planning on giving this liqueur as a gift or serving it at your next party, consider pouring the infusion into an attractive bottle with a tight-fitting cap. Prepare labels for the jar and bottle listing contents and date prepared.
11/2 cups vodka
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
Instructions: Peel the zest from 4 of the lemons with a zester or vegetable peeler, trying to avoid as much of the white pith as you can. Pour the vodka into the jar, and add the zest. Seal and label the jar, and let sit for 2 weeks, shaking daily, then strain out and discard the lemon zest.
To make a simple syrup, combine the sugar and water in a small saucepan, and heat just until all of the sugar is dissolved. It’s imperative to let this cool completely. You can expedite the cooling process by moving the syrup to a glass bowl and stirring constantly, or refrigerating it for at least 30 minutes.
Squeeze the remaining 4 lemons, remove the seeds, and add their juice to the syrup.
Add the lemon syrup to the infused vodka and allow it to mellow for 6 weeks. Makes about 3 cups.
How to Store It: Store in a cool, dark place or in the freezer almost indefinitely. The high alcohol content will keep it from freezing.
Food and lifestyle writer Karen Solomon is the author of Jam It, Pickle It, Cure It, Can It, Bottle It, Smoke It, Asian Pickles: Japan, and a contributor to Chow! San Francisco Bay Area. She also writes for the San Francisco Chronicle and is a former editor and columnist for the San Francisco Bay Guardian. Her writing has appeared in Fine Cooking, Yoga Journal, Prevention, the SF Zagat Guide, and dozens of Bay Area and national publications. Visit KSolomon.com.