DIY gifts your friends won't throw out

Jill Capuzzo annually gifts homemade food to her friends and family, changing up the assortment each year. Staff Photographer

It’s hard to deny the appeal of a homemade gift: a thoughtful gesture that takes time to create, with an added personal touch. But when it comes to edible items, not all homemade food gifts are created equal.

Take the ubiquitous fruitcake, that citron-laden doorstop that throughout the year most cooks wouldn’t dream of making for themselves (never mind eating,) but somehow feel compelled to produce and distribute en mass to all those teachers, delivery people, and book club members who  must be recognized during the holidays.

Or what about the ingredients-in-a-jar craze that was popular a few years ago but that, happily, is on the wane? Those never made sense to me. Not only did it mean you had to do half the work, but also no cookie or scone recipes require dumping all the ingredients into the bowl at once, as the prettily layered jar presentation demands. These mason jar gifts usually sat in my pantry until the layers started to get moldy.

So in thinking about what homemade food gifts I would mass-produce for holiday giving this year, I tried to focus either on items I’ve made that my friends and family eagerly accept each year, or on the cherished products I’ve received and look forward to resampling when holiday season rolls around again.  All are inexpensive and relatively easy to make, though some require a bit of patience. The grapefruit marmalade seems to take forever to reach the jelly stage; the granola requires some attentive babysitting; and the limoncello, though it’s the easiest of all the recipes, has to be set aside for two rather lengthy intervals.

Grapefruit marmalade is a staple of annual homemade food gifts.

My grapefruit marmalade is one food gift I’ve been making for years, often not until well into December, after all my holiday shopping is done and my houseful of Christmas guests are about to arrive. Getting it done earlier this year was a great relief. And because I made a larger batch than usual, I’ll be able to share this tangy condiment filled with an abundance of slivered peels, which I fondly refer to as the “marmals,” with a wider circle of friends.

Jill Capuzzo selects lovely bottles for her limoncello to enhance its appearance.

The limoncello was a gift I received from my friend Deborah Paredes in 2014 and 2015, and I was sorely disappointed when she failed to reproduce it last Christmas.  I grew wary again this year as November rolled around and there was no word about her getting her limoncello starter going. Deborah is a purist and follows some limoncello makers’ recommendations to let the lemon peels macerate in vodka for a month before adding the simple syrup, then letting  that mixture rest for two more weeks. I shortened the process to 10 days of macerating for step one, and another week for step two, which still produced tartly flavored liqueur, even if the color was a bit wan (easily remedied by adding a couple of drops of yellow food coloring.)

The recipe for a favorite crunchy granola was passed along.

The maple syrup-infused granola is one I’ve enjoyed by proxy. My sister Lisa Pollack works at the Brearley School in Manhattan, and, like most faculty members, she finds her desk laden with small gifts from students at the end of December, several of which I get to sample. One of the most anticipated in the last few years has been the mason jar filled with “Colette & Romy’s Crunchy Granola,” a nutty concoction made by two upper-school sisters, Colette and Romy Macari, both of whom, alas, have now graduated. Luckily, the girls’ mother, Kim Staller, was kind enough to share the recipe with me.

Orange poppy seed cakes are one of this year’s homemade food gifts.

When my daughters were in elementary school and I had a number of teachers whose good efforts deserved recognition, mini pound cakes proved an easy and popular solution. The orange and poppy seed cakes I made this year are a dense, flavorful variation of the lemon pound cakes I made in the past, and are bound to be more welcome than any fruitcake. With my daughters now grown, I imagine these pretty glazed cakes will make for great hostess gifts, especially after being properly trussed in colorful cellophane and bows.

Almost as important as the edible aspect of these food gifts is the presentation, which adds an extra layer of creativity and your own personal imprint. Mason jars come with holiday themed lids and are great for the marmalade, though I prefer the old-fashioned crank lid variety. For the granola, any  decorative airtight glass or plastic container will do. You can then add sparkly gift ribbon to the lids, or wrap the red-and-white string that bakeries use to tie up boxes around the jars’ neck several times, possibly lacing in a sprig of rosemary, a pine cone, or a jingle bell. For the limoncello and cakes, I scoured my favorite thrift stores and found some beautiful bottles, glass stoppers, and holiday cake pans, which also become part of the gift. These receptacles can also be found at most home goods stores.

And don’t forget the labeling. Here’s where you get to be artistic and share a greeting of love or appreciation. For the limoncello, I cut out lemon-shaped gift tags; my marmalade gets stick-on labels I embellish with a holly festooned border. Be sure to include the date, in case someone chooses not to dig into your gift immediately.

The one warning that comes with giving edible gifts that people actually want to consume: they’ll be expecting a repeat performance next year.


Makes about 6 pint bottles


10-12 thick-skinned lemons (preferably organic)

2 liters of vodka, 100-proof vodka, or Everclear spirits

4 cups sugar

4 cups water


1. Scrub the lemons clean, then use a vegetable peeler to remove all the lemon rinds, being careful to avoid any white pith, and cut into 3-4 inch slices.

2. Put the rinds in the bottom of a large glass jar that can be tightly sealed. Pour the spirits over the rinds and seal the jar.

3. Place the jar in a cool, dry place and leave undisturbed for one to four weeks (the longer you leave it, the more lemon flavor and yellow color will infuse the spirits.)

4. Put the sugar and water into a saucepan and bring to a boil; continue cooking until the sugar is completely dissolved, then let this simple syrup cool.

5. When the jarred spirits have achieved a nice yellow color, strain the liquid and discard the lemon peels.

6. Pour the simple syrup into the lemon formula, adding it incrementally, adjusting to the level of sweetness you prefer. Seal the jar and allow it to rest for a week or two.

7.  Pour the finished product into decorative half-liter bottles with stoppers.

-- From Jill Capuzzo

Per ¼-cup serving: 153 calories, no protein, 17 grams carbohydrates, 17 grams sugar, no fat, no cholesterol, 1 milligram sodium, no dietary fiber.

Orange Poppy Seed Mini Pound Cakes

Makes four mini pound cakes, or 16-24 servings.


2¼  sticks of butter

1¾ cups sugar (divided into 1¼ cups and ½ cup)

4 eggs

1/3 cup sour cream

1½ teaspoons vanilla

2 tablespoons grated orange zest

8 tablespoons fresh-squeezed orange juice (divided into 2 tablespoons and 6 tablespoons)

2¼ cups flour

1½ teaspoon baking powder

½ teaspoon salt

2 to 3 tablespoons poppy seeds (depending on taste preference)


1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter four mini-loaf pans, line bottoms with wax paper, and butter the paper.

2. In mixer, cream butter and add 1¼ cup sugar. Add eggs, one at a time.

3. Add sour cream, vanilla, orange zest, and 2 tablespoons orange juice and mix well.

4. Sift flour, baking powder, salt, and poppy seeds together and fold into wet ingredients until just incorporated.

5. Pour into prepared pans and bake for 40 minutes, until an inserted toothpick comes out clean.

6. While cakes are cooking, prepare the orange glaze: combine remaining sugar and orange juice in a saucepan and cook until sugar is dissolved; continue cooking for 1-2 minutes.

7. Remove cakes from pans, remove wax paper from bottoms, and while still, warm drizzle orange glaze across the top and sides.

-- From Jill Capuzzo, adapted from Shiela Lukins’ “All Around the World Cookbook”

Per serving (based on 24): 199 calories, 3 grams protein, 25 grams carbohydrates, 15 grams sugar, 11 grams fat, 52 milligrams cholesterol, 124 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.

Grapefruit Marmalade

Makes about 7 pints


10-12 grapefruits

10-12 cups sugar (approximately)


1. Using a vegetable peeler, strip the rinds from all the grapefruits, being careful not to include the white pith. Cut the rinds into 3-inch strips then slice them sliver thin. (You can pile up several strips  and slice all together.)

2. Put the slivered rinds in a quart pan and cover with enough water to immerse them. Bring the pot to a boil and let boil for 15-20 minutes. Drain the rinds and repeat the process.

3. Remove all the pulp the grapefruits and place in a large bowl (be sure not to include any skin, membrane, or seeds.)

4. Add the softened peels and toss with the fruit.

5. Transfer the fruit to a large, heavy Dutch oven. Using a measuring cup, measure out how much fruit mixture you have, and add the same amount of sugar.

6. Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce to medium heat. Continue cooking until it reaches 220 degrees on a candy thermometer, about 45 minutes to an hour.

7. Spoon hot marmalade into hot, sterilized jars, filling to about ½ inch from the top. Wipe tops of jars clean, lid and, seal them.

-- From Jill Capuzzo

Per tablespoon: 67 calories, trace protein, 18 grams carbohydrates, 18 grams sugar, no fat, no cholesterol, no sodium, trace dietary fiber.

Colette and Romy's Crunchy Granola

Makes about 5 quarts


10 cups old-fashioned oats

2 cups sliced almonds

2 cups chopped walnuts

1¼ cups brown sugar

½ cups maple syrup

½ cup canola oil

1½ teaspoons salt

2  cups dried cranberries or cherries


1. In a large mixing bowl, combine oats, nuts, and brown sugar.

2. In a smaller bowl, combine maple syrup, oil, and salt. Pour this mixture over the dry ingredients and mix together well.

3. Spread the mixture onto two or three cookie sheets, so it is less than ½-inch deep.

4. Bake in a preheated 325-degree oven for 1 to 1¼ hours until toasty brown, removing from oven every 15 to 20 minutes to stir the mixture to ensure even baking.

5. Remove from oven and let cool completely. Texture should be crunchy.

6. Chop the dried fruit and add to the oat-nut mixture. Pour into sealable glass or plastic jars.

-- From Jill Capuzzo, courtesy of Kim Staller

Per 1/2-cup serving: 258 calories, 7 grams protein, 35 grams carbohydrates, 8 grams sugar, 10 grams fat, no cholesterol, 91 milligrams sodium, 5 grams dietary fiber.