If the way to your man's heart is through his stomach (the same naturally applies to your woman, your godmother, and your nephew's daughter's boyfriend) then a do-it-yourself Christmas treat, artfully packaged in luxurious tissue paper, surely makes the ideal last-minute present. Because, get this – there are only seven days to go till Christmas and the space under the tree won't fill itself. What in the name of St Nicholas are you going to get Granny, whose bathroom already overflows with soap, and who might be suffocated by another scarf? Or what about your loved one, who simply doesn't need more cufflinks or perfume?
According to Andrew Maxwell, who runs the Tante Marie cookery school, we should be ditching the deplorably obvious in favour of the deliciously creative. For Maxwell, who took the helm at Tante Marie this year, and has worked under Gordon Ramsay (Ramsay Holdings now owns the school), nothing says "Merry Christmas" better than a box of homemade gourmet mint chocolates or a fig-and-almond loaf.
"Anyone can go to Amazon or Debenhams and buy a little gift pack or something," Maxwell says. "But when someone gives you a beautiful jar of clementines in brandy for Christmas, that's something totally different. It's something they won't have seen before, and shows you've gone to real effort to make it."
As lean times lead more of us to fillet our Christmas shopping lists, gourmet treats made on the cheap are flying out of kitchens this year. Tante Marie's two-day "creative Christmas" courses have had people queuing up at its Woking HQ to enrol, and places for next year's classes are already filling. Meanwhile, preserving jars and chocolate moulds are proving a hit with creative gift-givers. Lakeland, the self-styled "home of creative kitchenware", is working flat out to fulfil orders in the run-up to Christmas. "Things like silicone chocolate moulds, toffee trays, cake boxes and cellophane gift bags are selling twice as fast as we anticipated," says Veronica Davidson, a buyer at the Windermere-based chain. "Even my sister, whom I certainly wouldn't expect to be creative, made me a bottle of damson gin last year."
Maxwell says that homemade treats are not only more creative and thoughtful, but also more memorable. "About two years ago, my godmother, who lives on an island off west Scotland and was the one who introduced me to cooking, gave me a chocolate almond-and-cherry slice. It was in a real Italian style – the kind of thing you would serve with a shot of espresso – and was absolutely stunning. Of all the presents I've ever been given, that's probably the one that stands out just because it was totally different."
Whether you're in a Christmas-present crisis, or just fancy knocking up something extra for someone special, Maxwell has created five recipes designed to impress readers of The Independent. His favourite? "I'd go for the fig-and-almond loaf. If you're having a cheese board at the end of the meal, put one of these on and serve it with some clementines or a small bunch of grapes and a selection of mixed nuts, and suddenly the cheese course will become the highlight of the meal. Throw in a bottle of port and you'll have people munching away all afternoon."
Clementines in brandy
454g preserving or granulated sugar
1kg small clementines
For the spice bag:
2.5cm piece fresh ginger
1 clementine leaf, optional
½ tsp cloves
For each jar:
Clementine leaves, optional
a few shreds of root ginger
250ml (8fl.oz) brandy
Prick the clementines in a few places with a wooden skewer. Put the sugar into a pan with 1 litre (13/4pts) of water and the spice bag. Bring to the boil and boil rapidly for 5 minutes. Add the clementines, return to the boil then simmer very gently for 1 hour or until they are soft. Lift the fruit out with a draining spoon and arrange in hot sterilised jars with the spices and clementine leaves. Bring the syrup to the boil and boil to 113C. Remove from the heat and cool to 75C. Add brandy to the jars to half-fill them, then top up with sugar syrup to fill completely. Seal the jars. The clementines may be eaten one month later, but will improve with longer keeping.
For the filling:
½ tsp ground cinnamon
finely grated zest ½ large orange
For the shortbread:
125g soft light brown sugar
75g pecans, roughly chopped
100g ground almonds
225g cold butter, roughly chopped
Icing sugar to dust
Pre-heat the oven to gas mark 4, 180C. Put the ingredients for the filling into a saucepan and bring to the boil. Place in a food-processor and chop roughly.
Line the base and sides of a 20cm (8in) square cake tin with greaseproof paper.
To make the shortbread: sift the flour into a mixing bowl, stir in the sugar and almonds. Add the butter and rub it into the flour until it resembles coarse fresh breadcrumbs. Sprinkle half of this mixture into the prepared tin and press down lightly (do not make it too firm). Cover with the date mixture.
Mix the pecan nuts into the remaining flour and butter mixture and sprinkle over the top of the dates. Do not pat them down. Bake for 45-50 minutes – the top should be golden brown. Allow to cool in the tin for about 20 minutes before lifting out with the paper and placing on a wire rack to cool.
Cut in squares to serve either warm or cold.
Gourmet mint chocolates
300g white chocolate, finely chopped
½ tsp peppermint essence
50ml whipping cream
75g plain chocolate
100g clear peppermint sweets, crushed
Arrange approximately 36 foil or paper sweet cases on a baking sheet. Place the cream and 225g of the white chocolate in a bowl set over hot water and allow to melt, mix well. Do not allow to overheat. Add the crushed peppermints and stir until melted. Place the mixture in a piping bag with a plain nozzle, and three-quarter fill the cases. Flatten the top with a wet finger. Chill until set.
Place the remaining white chocolate in a bowl over hot water and stir until smooth. Pour into a greaseproof-paper piping bag. Melt the plain chocolate in a bowl over hot water and stir until smooth. Pour into a greaseproof-paper piping bag. Cover the tops of half of the mint sweets with white chocolate, put a blob of dark chocolate on the top and draw a cocktail stick through to give a heart shape. Cover the remaining half of the chocolates in the same way but with reversed coloured chocolates. Leave to set.
14oz dried figs – use a mixture of varieties, try to source soft ones!
2 tbsp sesame seeds
½ tsp ground star anise
100g whole unblanched almonds
2 tsp finely chopped rosemary
Line a small loaf tin or round mould with cling film, leaving an overhang to cover the top. Set aside.
Lightly toast the sesame seeds in a small pan until just golden, then combine with the anise powder and set aside. Slice the figs vertically in half.
Press a solid layer of the figs on to the bottom of the mould, cut-side down. Sprinkle the figs with a heaped tablespoon of the seed mixture and drizzle about 2 tsp honey over the top.
Sprinkle half the rosemary over the top. Cover with another layer of fig slices, followed by 1 tbsp of seeds, then 2 more tsp of honey. Press half of the almonds over the figs, then drizzle another 2 tsp of honey over the nuts.
Add another layer of figs, followed by more seeds, then honey, the remaining rosemary and almonds.
Finally, top with a last layer of figs, cut-side down
Cover with the cling film, then cut a piece of cardboard to fit neatly inside the top of the mould.
Press down with weights for at least 2 hours – ideally overnight.
Serve with cheese.
Cranberry and cherry sauce
350g fresh or frozen cranberries
1 thick slice fresh root ginger
175g caster sugar, golden if possible
Zest of 1 large orange
Juice of 2 large oranges
150ml red wine
50g dried cherries or raisins
1 cinnamon stick
Place all the ingredients, except the orange zest and dried cherries or raisins, into a saucepan and bring to the boil. Simmer uncovered, stirring occasionally for 30 minutes. Using a slotted draining spoon, remove half of the cranberries and keep on one side. Also, remove the cinnamon stick and slice of ginger and discard. Blend the sauce in a liquidiser until smooth, replace the reserved cranberries and add the orange zest and dried cherries or raisins. Serve at once, or cool and freeze until required.