Valerie Phillips: Fun gift ideas for neighbors

Published: Tuesday, Dec. 20 2011 5:00 p.m. MST

Chocolate covered popcorn (Valerie Phillips)

Valerie Phillips

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It's that "neighbor gift" time of year. I think I must live in the most creative neighborhood in the USA, because my neighbors continually come up with ideas that are fun, flavorful and heartfelt.

Already our family has received a holiday-themed plate bearing a small package of Ritz crackers, a mini-cheese ball and a cute little holiday knife for spreading the cheese. We've also received jars of homemade jam. (My husband's favorite gift to get!) One had a pretty fabric topper with a festive embroidered flower. Another friend uses her own backyard-grown raspberries. Another neighbor makes a wallet-size card with the phone numbers of everyone in the neighborhood. I can't tell you how many times that has come in handy!

I am writing this after spending a few hours today making neighbor gifts of chocolate-drizzled popcorn. I'll admit, it's not unique, but I've never felt any particular pressure in my neighborhood to "keep up with the Joneses."

Mass-producing treats is a big temptation for me. I tend to nibble here and there, and the calories add up. Some years I've given a non-sweet gift, or I make treats I don't enjoy eating, or I'll buy something already packaged so that I can't sample "just a few" before they go out the door.

A couple years ago I did a "seasonings greetings" theme, making an Italian blend from herbs I grew that summer. Another year, I did baking mixes with mixing spoons attached, with the tag line, "Not a creature was stirring."

My sister-in-law, who lives in Virginia, has complained to me, "Why do people in Utah always have to have some little pun or joke to go with their gift? Why can't they just give a gift and be done with it?"

I don't know if it's just a Utah thing, but I enjoy some of those fun tag lines.

A few days ago I was strolling the aisles at the Michael's craft store in Bountiful looking at all the cute containers and thought of all the yummy goodies that could be packaged in them.

Somehow chocolate-drizzled popcorn came to mind. It's sort of elegant, and (with apologies to my sister-in-law) popcorn lends itself to some fun tag lines, such as "Just poppin' in to say Merry Christmas" or "Merry Christmas from your corny neighbors!" or, in the case of white chocolate popcorn, "Here's wishing you a white (chocolate) Christmas."

I already had an 8-pound container of Orville Redenbacher popcorn kernels sitting in my food storage, and an air-popper waiting in my kitchen, so I was in business.

Drizzling the popcorn turned out to be a pretty simple process.

It was also fairly inexpensive (although I don't want my neighbors reading this to think I'm being a cheapskate!). I was able to make 20 bags of popcorn (about 4 cups each) with about $25 worth of chocolate, and that includes some nibbling here and there on my part.

I'm glad I didn't use microwave popcorn; for one thing, it costs about 10 times more than the old-fashioned kernels that you air-pop yourself. Consider that a $2 bag of plain kernels yields 112 cups; while a $3 three-pack box of microwave popcorn will yield only about 10 cups.

Microwave popcorn also tends to have a lot of unpopped kernels that need to be weeded out so that someone doesn't break a tooth.

Air-popped popcorn has no added butter or oil, so it's like a blank canvas for the chocolate, and the kernels don't get soggy. An air-popper costs about $20-$25, and the investment pays off quickly if your family eats lots of popcorn.

I used Guittard chocolate for the milk chocolate coating, because I love its deep, almost-caramelized flavor.

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