Panic usually sets in right about now. The countdown to Christmas has dropped to single digits, New Year's party hosts will need gifts, too -- and the very idea of braving the mall is enough to send shivers from nose to toes.
Clearly, it's time to swing into DIY action -- and we've got you covered with more than half a dozen edible, 11th-hour gifts. Cherry marmalade, anyone? Cranberry vodka? Or how about a ridiculously decadent salted-caramel sauce? We've got something to delight cocktail mavens and crumpets-and-cream types alike.
Let's start with dessert and a salted-caramel sauce from Martha Holmberg, author of "Modern Sauces" (Chronicle Books, $35, 256 pages).
"You learn to make that sauce," the Portland, Ore., food writer promises, "and now any time you have a dinner party, you put it on store-bought ice cream. People will think you're a frickin' genius."
They'll be right, too. That caramel sauce is so good, you may never have to come up with another gift idea again. Just keep making that one -- or Holmberg's favorite fresh ginger-caramel variation or her sour cream-hot fudge sauce. Pour them in nice jars, add labels and prepare to catch gift recipients mid-swoon.
There's something so special about a handmade gift, Holmberg says.
"You know someone didn't just click on something on Amazon. They spent time. It's like getting a long handwritten letter as opposed to a short email."
Holmberg's grandmother always gave friends and family her special divinity fudge -- in shoeboxes, lined with wax paper. It was her signature. Caramel sauce -- or chocolate sauce -- can be yours.
"I think the world is divided into the chocolate people and caramel-ginger-lemon people," Holmberg says. "I like chocolate a lot, but I don't go ape. But caramel and ginger? To me, that's like bringing together the best two flavors in the world in one sauce."
Make them tonight, give them tomorrow. Or freeze them -- yes, even the sour cream fudge sauce -- in a zip-top freezer bag; they'll make lovely Valentine's presents, too.
Play Candy Land
It's all about the candy for Liz Gutman, co-owner of New York City's 3-year-old Liddabit Sweets. Gutman and her business partner, Jen King, met in pastry school, but the sweet shop was supposed to have been a lark. As it turns out, the duo have not only a thriving candy business but a new cookbook to boot, "Liddabit Sweets Candy Cookbook; How to Make Truly Scrumptious Candy in Your Own Kitchen" (Workman, $17.95, 302 pages).
When birthdays, holidays and other gift-giving occasions roll around, Gutman's friends and family always know what they're getting: homemade candy.
"Absolutely," she says. "That's all they ever get."
As befits any confectioner, Gutman goes wild with her candies, whipping up homemade Snickers-type bars, rum-tinged tropical toffee with macadamia nuts, and choco-mallow confections that use a Thomas Keller cookie recipe as the base.
But for beginners -- or anyone suffering candy thermometer phobia -- Gutman suggests starting with buttermints. You remember them, those pastel, chalky little blobs found in retro restaurants? These taste like exquisite little blobs of the best minty frosting.
"The recipe is super simple," Gutman says. "Four ingredients, five minutes, stuff you already have in your pantry. And it's really versatile. The default on flavoring is mint, but we have variations with chocolate, coffee, cinnamon oil, and you can color them however you like, in pastels or really bright colors. Whatever tickles your fancy."
It's easy enough, she says, for kids to get in on the fun, too.
In a jam
Jam-making more your thing? This is prime citrus season and the perfect time to fill jars with homemade tangerine-vanilla or a ruby-hued cherry marmalade with pops of orange rind. Even better, says Elizabeth Field, author of "Marmalade" (Running Press, $18, 192 pages), grab bags of cherries from the freezer case; you won't have to pit them.
Or you can take a page from Anne Applebaum's "From a Polish Country House Kitchen" (Chronicle Books, $40, 288 pages) and play with infused vodka. Applebaum offers several twists on the vodka theme, including one flavored with oranges and fresh rosemary, but it's hard to resist the cheery color of her cherry vodka.
The fresh fruit -- cherries, wild blueberries, black currants or, as we soon discovered, cranberries -- steeps in the liquid for several weeks. Nothing says it has to steep at your house. Present those precious bottles with a tag promising them a cheery cherry toast in the new year and instructions for when to strain the mixture and start sipping.
Just remember the cardinal rule when making edible gifts: Make a little extra for yourself.
Find recipes for Cherry Marmalade, Tangerine and Vanilla Marmalade and Cherry Vodka on Page 3